The Montreal Gazette
Monday, August 10, 1998

Regulating the Internet

The devil makes work for idle hands. That traditional precept comes to mind when considering the extraordinary invitation issued recently by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The CRTC, it seems, thinks there may well be a new job for it in regulating the Internet.

The federal government agency has asked Canadians whether they agree. It should get a firm and speedy answer: not on your life.

True, the CRTC can say it merely responded to a government request. Ottawa has implied that the same kind of regulation is needed for new media like the Internet as has long been applied to television and radio broadcasting. In both those cases, there is regulation of competition and supervision of content.

But government regulation of competition in the broadcasting business was justified by the argument that the business was a natural monopoly. Allocate a broadcasting frequency to one radio station, and another station could not use that frequency simultaneously. License one cable-television company to supply a particular area, and it made little sense to allow another cable-television company to install a second cable network along the same streets.

This natural monopoly is already crumbling under the pressure of technological innovations such as personal satellite receivers and, soon, Web-TV. So is the natural monopoly that justified the CRTC's other major role - regulating telephone companies - as deregulation proceeds. It's not surprising, therefore, that the idle hands at the CRTC would want to busy themselves with the fast-growing Internet.

The Net may be many things, but a monopoly is not one of them. Big players are active in this informal and wide-open global network of computers. A host of individual players also get into the game, on the proverbial shoestring. So no government regulation is required to protect us from greedy monopolists.

Ah, the CRTC says, broadcasting legislation obliges us to supervise the content of what goes out on the air. And if Canadians are concerned about perils such as exposure to obscenity, pornography, or hate propaganda on the Internet, maybe we should have the power to stop it.

But Canadians already have perfectly adequate laws against dissemination of this kind of garbage. If they think these laws should be strengthened, change the laws themselves rather than set up an expensive and potentially stifling new bureaucracy.

What about Canadian content, the CRTC asks? Broadcasting legislation requires us to "ensure a prominent Canadian presence in the content and delivery of broadcasting services", its recent invitation stated.

Again, whatever the shaky rationale for the heavy-handed and confusing Canadian-content rules in broadcasting, this objective is irrelevant to the Internet. Ease of entry and fierce competition among providers of Internet content protect the public interest quite adequately in this arena.

Clearly, what the CRTC is angling for is to ensure the new medium provides it with a new lease on life. Its innocent-sounding questions could lead unwary Canadians to believe this is a good idea. The CRTC should get the negative answer it deserves, not the positive answer it expects.

Copyright © 1998 by Matthew Friedman. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.