Two recent moves in Ottawa have raised the spectre of widespread Canadian government regulation of the Internet sometime in the future.
Yet another bill aimed at preventing child pornography on the Net was introduced by Chris Axworthy (NDP Saskatoon), who had proposed similar legislation that died when the 1997 election was called. Axworthy's bill would prohibit using the Net to facilitate sex offences involving children, require Internet service providers to be licensed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), and empower the federal government to conduct electronic searches.
The bill was roundly criticized by Electronic Frontier Canada (EFC), whose president, David Jones, says the bill would result in a regulatory nightmare. "One thing I hope will be clear to Canadians is that, currently, the CRTC has no jurisdiction over the Internet. This bill is asking for a fundamental change in the CRTC's mandate." EFC's vice-president, Jeffrey Shallit, warned: "[The bill] will set up a huge new bureaucracy which is costly and cumbersome, disproportionate to the problem. It puts the state in charge of saying who may speak on the Internet, in violation of the Charter."
The CRTC itself opened up another front in the controversy over the Internet when it decided to investigate the viability of a regulatory body to police cyberspace. the objective of such regulation would be to protect Canadians - especially young Canadians - from pornography and hate propaganda on the Internet. It could also be used to promote Canadian culture, the CRTC said.
The move is born of many parents' fear that the Internet is a conduit to the most lascivious and hateful communications in the world. But in a realm where national boundaries are transparent, regulation seems a flimsy solution. As one telecommunications expert points out, existing laws on pornography and hate propaganda are being applied to the Internet now.
Public hearings were planned for late November 1998. The commission underlined in its announcement that the CRTC had not prejudged its role, if any, in regulating the Internet. Its role is to "ensure the availability of high-quality and diverse Canadian programming ... The substantial growth and development of new media, and their delivery over both global and domestic netwoorks, have not altered this fundamental objective, which has challenged and preoccupied Canadians for much of the 20th century.
The tension between the Internet and government, parents, and others who want to exert some control over what is in essence a massive and uncontrollable communications system is bound to persist.