QUEBEC -- The Office de la langue française is overstepping its jurisdiction when it tries to enforce the use of French on the Internet, Canadian Heritage Minsiter Sheila Copps said yesterday. The Internet, she said, is a federal responsibility.
"We're certainly going to be monitoring the situation closely because communications is a matter of federal jurisdiction", Copps told The Gazette. "They're entering in on pretty murky territory and I'm not sure they would be successful."
Under the Canadian constitution, telecommunications is under the control of the Canadian government, Copps said. Currently, the heritage ministry is responsible for content on the internet while the industry department deals with computer hardware.
Copps's comments yesterday come in the wake of the revelation that language inspectors have begun patrolling the Internet for commercial Web 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 home page violated the language law. Grauer initially removed most of his home page 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 home page in coming days.
Language Minister Louise Beaudoin has defended the Office's actions, saying it has the right to apply Bill 101 in cyberspace because section 52 of the French language law governing commercial advertising does not exclude the Internet.
Yesterday, however, Copps said the Quebec government doesn't have the power to enforce provincial laws on the Internet because the federal government has jurisdiction over telecommunications.
"Obviously it's a form of telecommunications because you have to have some sort of an apparatus to communicate, the same way as to pick up a telephone."
Copps said the federal government hasn't done anything yet because the OLF has not tried to prosecute anybody. However, she said her department is watching to see what happens.
"I think the Office de la langue française might have some difficulty (applying Bill 101 to the Internet) and I think they've said that it's a gray area, they don't really know."
"But I haven't looked at whether we would be looking at overriding their process precisely because at this point no legal action has been taken", she added.
Copps said the Quebec government is right to be trying to improve French content on the Internet but it's approach is "wrong headed".
Instead of cracking down on small businesses, the Quebec government should use its resources to improve the ratio of computers to students in the province's schools, currently the worst in the country, Copps said. Quebec has one classroom computer per 22 students compared to one for every eight students in British Columbia.
"The real content creators are coming from the young people and you're not giving them all the help that they need to achieve that.
"They could be investing there instead of investing in the internet police."
David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a group that lobbies against attempts to control the internet, said he believes the Quebec government could have the right to apply Bill 101 to commercial websites because the issue is more one of provincial controls over companies than of federal control over telecommunications.
Jones said the issue has begun attracting interest from the Internet community around the world, including residents of France where a similar government attempt was recently overturned. To date, participants in discussions have suggested the government focus on helping businesses make their sites bilingual rather than threatening them with penalties for not having French, he said.
Meanwhile, Alliance Quebec posted a bilingual message on its web site yesterday, urging anyone who objects to the government's policy to send an e-mail message to Beaudoin at email@example.com.
"Promoting the use of the French language on the Internet is a very worthy goal", wrote Alliance Quebec president Michael Hamelin. "Doing so through threats of prosecution is not."