QUEBEC -- The Office de la Langue Française is stretching the interpretation of the language law by going after Quebec businesses that advertise in English on the Internet and probably would lose a challenge in court, a former head of the Office said yesterday.
Pierre Etienne Laporte, now Liberal language critic, said there is nothing specified in the French Language Charter, Bill 101, that gives the Office the power to intervene in cases involving the Internet.
"They are extending the sense of that section to cover Web sites because they are making an extremely elastic interpretation of the law", Laporte said yesterday. "If we make a strictly legal interpretation of the law, in my opinion it poses a certain number of problems in interpretation and application."
Laporte likened the OLF's actions to a "fishing operation" and predicted its interpretation wouldn't hold up in court.
Saturday, The Gazette reported that language inspectors have begun patrolling the Internet for commercial sites from Quebec based companies that don't conform with Bill 101.
Morty Grauer, owner of the Pointe Claire computer store Micro-Bytes Logiciels, received a warning letter from OLF in late-May, advising him that his company's homepage violated the language law. Grauer initially removed most of his homepage from the Net after receiving the warning but has since reinstated it after receiving dozens of E-mail messages of support.
He now plans to translate his company's homepage in coming days.
OLF officials confirm they have been deluged with waves of E-mail in recent days from Internet surfers around the world upset with its actions.
But speaking yesterday to reporters, Language Minister Louise Beaudoin said she hasn't heard a peep from her electronic mailbox.
Beaudoin once again defended the Office, saying it has the right to enforce Bill 101 in cyberspace because section 52 of the French language law governing commercial advertising does not exclude the Internet. But while the OLF is asking business Web sites to conform to Bill 101, the language law does not affect non-business, personal communications, she pointed out.
Although a law in France designed to achieve the same end was recently struck down by the courts, Beaudoin said there are differences between French and Quebec laws which allow the OLF to enforce Bill 101.
Alliance Quebec president Michael Hamelin described the decision to have OLF cybercops begin patrolling the Internet as "petty, silly, and insulting".
"Governments are not even regulating pornography on the Internet and here we have the Quebec government running around trying to get rid of English. ...You're not doing anything to encourage people to use French, you're just harassing people who are English-speaking."
Virtually all the provincial government departments are accessible through the Internet - not only in French and English, but also Spanish.
The only exception is the Office de la Langue Française, which is unilingual.
OLF spokesman Gérald Paquette was unapologetic yesterday. "Our job is to promote the French language." Even the OLF's Web site (www.olf.gouv.qc.ca) is different from those for other government departments.
The main Web site gives visitors the option of getting their information in French, English, or Spanish. Although Paquette said that non-francophone companies can request language-law documents in English, those demands will only be answered outside the province.