If nothing else, the Canadian Association of Internet Providers has good timing. The association, which represents some of Canada's largest Internet service providers, announced Nov. 1 that its members would comply with a voluntary code of conduct "in response to increasing concerns over content on the Internet."
They agreed to co-operate with law-enforcement authorities, that they will not knowingly host illegal content on their servers, and that they would take steps to investigate any complaints about such content or network abuse.
On the following Monday, Nov. 4, police in Kirkland Lake, Ont., announced the arrest of a man accused of possessing child pornography and participating in an "international pedophile ring" on the Internet.
All of a sudden, child pornography on the Internet is a hot issue in Canada, and CAIP couldn't have better planned the announcement of its code of conduct if it had tried.
"It was amazingly good timing for us," said association president Ken Fockler. "We've been talking about a code of conduct for a couple of years -- before CAIP was even formed. We had discussed something like a `Good Housekeeping' seal of approval.
"I attended the police chief association's meeting in Ottawa in August, and talked to people in the RCMP and the Ontario Provincial Police about what we could do. They were concerned about child pornography on the Internet, so it showed we were on the right track."
The recent debate about offensive content on the Net rattled some of the association's members and, despite the successful court challenge to the Communications Decency Act in the U.S. this summer, there was a consensus that the industry should act before the boom fell in Canada.
"A lot of ISPs feel concern about content on the Internet, privacy and issues like that", said Ron Kawchuck, CAIP's executive director. "There was concern that the government might try to legislate regulations. I think the industry decided that, if there are going to be standards, then it should set its own."
The code has received mixed reviews, however. The Canadian branch of the Simon Wiesenthal centre, a long-time proponent of strict Internet regulation, praised CAIP, but civil libertarians have been less enthusiastic.
"There's a lot of common sense in the code of conduct but not much detail", said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, an Internet civil-liberties group. "It's directed at the public, rather than at the ISPs' users or the industry. This is a public-relations effort. As a business-motivated organization, CAIP's members want to convince the public that they're good corporate citizens with good family values."
While he has no problem with the code of conduct in principle, Jones is concerned that, by leaving it vague, CAIP may be creating problems for its members. "I'm glad to see that they come out and say that 'privacy is of fundamental importance' in the code", Jones said. "But in the commentary, they say 'taking into account the relative sensitivity of each type of information.' CAIP obviously doesn't want to say that anything is 100-per-cent private, in case they have to co-operate with the police. Unfortunately, in order to measure the relative sensitivity of information, they'll have to look at it."
Moreover, Jones points out that the section of the code where CAIP pledges to "notify the content provider or abuser of the complaint, with a request for response within seven days" is unworkable. "If someone is sending out offensive e-mail, that would work," he said. "But what if he's doing something illegal, like providing child pornography? Are they going to call and say 'please clean up your act in seven days?' Where it's merely offensive behaviour, it's effective, but when it's illegal, the procedure is totally inappropriate."
Indeed, by basing the code of conduct on a complaints process -- CAIP recognizes that its members can't monitor all content, so it commits them to investigating complaints -- the association is inviting a flood of complaints. "It invites letter-writing campaigns that are attempts to silence unpopular views", Jones said. "I'm not really criticizing the idea, but there must be a better way to deal with it."
Nevertheless, Kawchuck is quick to point out that the code is a "living document", a work in progress that will evolve as the association receives input from the Internet community. "It's not the easiest thing in the world to figure out what to do and how to do it", he said. "This is really just the beginning of a process. In fact, you have to wonder if you can have a code for just one country, or if we need international co-operation with industry associations in other parts of the world."
It's hard to tell if CAIP's code will have much effect on Internet use. For one thing, it is a voluntary code, and there are no sanctions for member ISPs that choose not to comply with it. Moreover, CAIP only represents some of the Internet providers in Canada, and has no way to impose the code on non-members. It's ultimate value, however, may be as a signal to legislators that the Internet is capable of policing itself without the need for government regulation, and as a message to the offline public that, despite high-profile cases, like the Kirkland Lake bust, the Internet is not really a pit of sin and corruption.