eye weekly
Thursday, September 10, 1998
vol 10, issue 48

The CRTC can't regulate the net

by Ingrid Hein

Every time the issue of regulating the net bubbles to the surface of tech-media, most newspaper columnists and editors come down on the same side of the fence. Everyone speaks their piece about how regulation online is unacceptable - not to mention technically difficult, if not impossible.

Besides, since child pornography and hate literature - the main concerns - are already illegal, what's the point of creating more legislation on the same issues?

Well here we go again. The CRTC, which regulates radio, television, and telecommunications, is calling for submissions "to examine the rapidly expanding, and increasingly available, range of communications services collectively known or referred to as new media".

In other words, they're looking to talk about the net. The CRTC doesn't claim to have any idea about what the discussion will lead to, just that "it has to be discussed", according to CRTC media relations officer Denis Carmel. "There are a lot of questions about unfair competition."

Carmel says the CRTC is spending $45,000-$50,000 on the proceedings.

He also says long-distance phone companies, Internet service providers, and broadcasters have raised concerns that the free-flowing nature of information on the net will put them out of business. It's not surprising that the question of competition has been raised by media monopolies which have had to pay homage to the CRTC in the past. The nature of the net is to decentralize and democratize the ebb and flow of information, which makes it difficult to run a monopoly, which in turn makes anything the CRTC may decide superfluous.

Questions being raised include whether people should be able to use the net for long-distance services and whether it should be available for anyone to "broadcast" on, free of regulations.

The most puzzling question the CRTC is asking is whether to regulate Canadian content by "ensuring that new broadcasting content services meet the sovereignty and cultural identity objectives of the Broadcasting Act, and that content services are introduced in a manner which contributes to the objective of reinforcing Canadian sovereignty and cultural identity". In other words, making sure that CanCon has a presence online.

Fat chance. The Internet is a global network, and CanCon rules will have little to no influence on the free flow of information.

McLuhanizing the debate

Like most geek journalists covering tech issues, denouncing the idea of regulating the net seems obvious and indisputable to me. But I'm interested in the method by which the CRTC is discussing the subject.

The University of Toronto McLuhan Program is taking on the role of online moderator for these discussions, which will use the net to discuss the credibility of the net. This is a little ironic: regulating the net is about limiting freedom of speech, and by using the net to solicit discussion on the issue of limiting freedom of speech on the net, it becomes clear the net is a good forum for discussion. Period.

So the real purpose behind the CRTC's discussion on net policy is actually an experiment to see if "digital democracy" works - which is what the McLuhan centre is interested in.

I initially found it startling that the McLuhan Program (which carries on the ideas of Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan) would associate itself with regulation of the net. But executive producer Liss Jeffreys says, "We are not taking a position. We will not be appearing at the public hearing. That's not what we're doing here. We feel there's an honest role here to find out what is on Canadian minds."

Jeffreys, who is directing the online new-media forum, says McLuhan's views on regulating media are irrelevant. "His view was that technology is not inevitable, provided we are prepared to pay attention. What people think is important to pay attention to."

Copyright © 1998 by Ingrid Hein. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.