The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission never fails to amaze me.
This champion of the V-chip has an unerring talent for sticking its regulatory nose where it is neither wanted nor needed. And it's at it again - this time with the Internet and "new media."
Last week, the CRTC began a process for discussion of the scope and impact of the new media - "specifically the Internet" - to determine how, and if, they should be regulated.
While it's comforting that Ottawa's media mandarins leave the regulation question open with that "if", it's pretty clear from the public notice that announced the process that they're far more interested in the "how". I'd be a lot happier if the commission was a little clearer on what it wants to regulate.
It's not surprising that the CRTC has decided to explore the brave new world of Internet regulation.
After all, it is in the business of regulating electronic media and telecommunications, and the new media seem, on the surface, to fall nicely into those categories.
Moreover, there is such a hue and cry whenever a 14-year-old downloads a picture of Pamela Anderson Lee in the buff, or someone behaves like a racist jerk in an Internet discussion forum, that a body like the CRTC can't help but take notice.
It's worth noting, however, that most of the whining about what is inevitably described as "harmful and indecent Internet content" comes from the 75 per cent of Canadians who have never actually used the Internet. But I digress.
Unfortunately, when the commission asks, in its public notice, if it is appropriate to regulate "offensive content (e.g. obscenity, hate propaganda, and discriminatory material), violence and gender portrayal, and advertising to children", you just know that it is asking permission to regulate it.
Setting aside the fact that we already have laws that deal quite nicely with "obscenity, hate propaganda, and discriminatory material" - and, consequently, we don't need the CRTC to worry about them - the commission seems to be musing about the possibility of regulating new-media content on the same terms as television and radio. This is reinforced by how much of the public notice is given over to questions about Canadian content.
I'm frankly appalled that the mandarins are even asking the question. We accept content regulations for television and radio for two reasons. For one thing, the broadcast spectrum is a finite resource.
Only a certain number of stations can broadcast in the same geographic area at the same time, so we want them to behave responsibly, and in the interests of the greatest number of people.
The other reason is that it costs a lot of money to set up a radio or television station, so very few people determine what the rest of us will hear and see.
That's a recipe for an information monopoly, and we accept the CRTC's regulatory intervention to ensure that these broadcast tycoons don't use that position to step all over us.
However, the Internet is nothing like the broadcast media. For one thing, there is no limit to the number of content providers on the Net, and while there are some big players in the new media, the vast majority of online content, from Usenet postings to Web sites, is created by ordinary, private individuals. It costs next to nothing to set up a Web site. CNN and NBC have sites, but so do I. And so does my buddy Stew. And soon my parents will have one, too.
It's just a hunch, but I don't think we have to worry about Stew or my parents having an information monopoly.
The point is that most Net content has a lot more in common with conversation than with broadcasting. Consequently, any regulation of this content will have profound implications for freedom of speech.
Courts in the United States understood that when they struck down the Communications Decency Act provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The CRTC should understand it, too. The fact that the commission is asking the question at all proves that it doesn't.
There is a role for the CRTC on the information highway. Part of its job is to ensure that the telecom infrastructure runs smoothly and fairly without having any say about the content of our telephone conversations. With the Internet, it should continue to serve the same function without intervening in the content that we bring online.
The media mandarins need a pretty good reason to even suggest regulations that may impinge on our freedom of speech, create a nightmare of Canadian-content restrictions for content providers and hold back the development of home-grown new media. The proceeding is designed to "encourage the development of Canadian content that can compete with the best that the world has to offer".
The CRTC can best do that by leaving well enough alone.
You can read the CRTC's notice here: http://www.crtc.gc.ca/ENG/bcasting/notice/1998/p9882-0.txt.
You can submit written comments on the notice to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Les Terrasses de la Chaudiere, 1 Promenade du Portage, Room 201, Hull, Que. K1A 0N2. The deadline for the first phase of submissions is Oct. 1.
Public hearings on new-media regulation will start on Nov. 23. More information can be found on the CRTC's Web site, www.crtc.gc.ca.