The Montreal Gazette
Wednesday, June 9, 1999

Ms. Beaudoin surfs the Net

Louise Beaudoin, the Quebec minister responsible for language, seems alarmingly impervious to ridicule. No imagined, perceived, or even stupidly real infraction of the French Language Charter is too small or insignificant for her department to prosecute.

Once again, her department has threatened to fine a Quebec-based company for failure to give equal visibility to French in a Web site.

Two years ago, the Office de la Langue Francaise threatened to fine a Pointe Claire store, Micro-Bytes Logiciels, unless it removed its English-only Web site -- even though it was in the process of developing a bilingual Web site. This time, the Office has gone after a photography studio in Chomedey, ordering www.michaelsphoto.com off the Internet for its failure to provide a French version.

Allowing the Office to behave like some sort of demented Ewok and chase off into cyberspace at the sight of an English-language Web site verges on irresponsible.

As a minister of Quebec's government, here is something that Ms. Beaudoin should keep in mind and use to guide her future actions: the United States is the world's top-performing economy, the wealthiest, the most competitive.

How does it continue to be No. 1 in the world year after year? According to a comparative study this year out of Switzerland, the core of U.S. competitiveness is a unique ability to grow using innovations. Right now, it is riding the Internet and E-commerce wave with more vitality than any other economy.

Quebec needs to be on that wave, riding it into a strong economy and the creation of high-technology jobs. Technology is creating a global economy that is in a phase of amazing growth. Information and capital move around the world virtually unimpeded by regulatory forces.

In Canada, even such a normally meddlesome agency as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has declared the Internet a regulatory-free zone -- aside, of course, from existing laws on pornography, hate literature, fraud, and money-laundering. No government or agency can claim ownership of the Internet. Why, then, should a Quebec Web-site owner's obligations include having to present a French face to the world?

Inside the physical world of Quebec, the government, through the French Language Charter, has ruled that all Quebec-based catalogues, brochures, commercial directories, and similar publications must be in French and it is now pretending that Web sites fall under the same legislation.

But cyberspace is not confined to a specific physical place. That is the source of its immense freedom. Everyone the world over has access to it, in any language they choose to use, and at the same time nothing is imposed. Quebecers would have to seek www.michaelsphoto.com out of literally millions of Web sites to feel offended at the lack of French.

Smart businesses operating in Quebec will, if they can afford it, see the value of a bilingual Web site in attracting customers. But that should be their choice, not the government's.

Copyright © 1999 by The Montreal Gazette. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.