The Montreal Gazette
Saturday, June 21, 1997

Bill 101 on the Web

by Louise Beaudoin, Louise.beaudoin/depute/

I would like to take advantage of the current debate on the Office de la Langue Franšaise's actions with respect to cyberspace to review the issues and set out the Quebec government's position on this matter. I would also like to do the same with respect to the application of the French Language Charter to business cards.

Much has been said on this subject in recent days. Many misinterpretations have been advanced and I believe we must set the facts straight and repeat some principles.

Let us go back to the beginning.

The case in point involves Microbytes, a Montreal retailer of computer products. This company operates three stores serving a predominantly francophone clientele.

Microbytes has set up a Web site, intended for its Montreal customers, to promote its products. In January 1997, when the Office received the complaint, the Web site was almost entirely in English. Since then, four other complaints have been lodged against this retailer, each dealing with different violations of the Charter, particularly the provisions on business signs.

In response to the Office's efforts, the retailer in question decided to add information in French to its site.

So much for the facts.

It goes without saying that what is at issue here is only business advertising. Personal Web pages and non-commercial sites were never in question. This is just common sense.

The Office based its action on Section 52 of the Charter, which deals with business advertising. This section provides that:

"Catalogues, brochures, fliers, commercial directories and all other publications of the same type must be produced in French."

To recall the principle governing Charter provisions in this area, Quebec consumers are entitled to receive advertising in their own language in Quebec. This principle has been applied since 1977 and is now generally a part of accepted business practice.

Some people, including federal Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, argue that Quebec has no jurisdiction over the Internet. With all due respect to Ms. Copps, Quebec does have jurisdiction over consumer protection and advertising. This is how we are able to defend, to some extent, francophones' right to receive information in their own language in Quebec. Quebec's jurisdiction applies regardless of the medium used, whether it be mail or the Internet.

It has been argued that Quebec cannot exercise jurisdiction over companies located outside its borders that put advertising on the Internet. This is true. But this is no reason, in our view, to abdicate our responsibility to protect Quebec consumers to the extent that we are able.

It has been suggested that the government of Quebec subsidize Quebec merchants and businesses so they will translate their Internet advertising into French. The government of Quebec has no intention whatsoever of subsidizing anyone out of the public purse in order to translate advertising into the language of the majority. That is asking a bit much.

Advertising is not a charitable activity. It is generally an investment made with the intention of increasing sales and thereby making more money.

The government of Quebec is already spending a considerable sum to support French on the Internet. We are investing $60 million over three years to ensure that Quebecers are present on the Net. Already, according to recent studies, 30 per cent of French-language Web sites originate in Quebec, though we make up only 5 per cent of the francophone population of the planet.

In conclusion, I would like to say that it seems to me inconsistent that people who accept the principle that Quebec consumers are entitled to receive advertising in their own language in Quebec would not accept that this principle also applies to the Internet. That is a double standard.

It also seems perfectly natural to me that, both for business reasons and out of respect for the francophone majority, Quebec merchants should avoid being disrespectful by addressing people in English only, but should rather have the courtesy to do so in French as well.

The fact that some merchants seem to have understood this elementary rule only after the Office de la Langue Franšaise became involved demonstrates that our language laws are still necessary.

As for the matter of business cards, I have already said in public that we must show common sense and good judgment here. Since business cards are not primarily an advertising vehicle, the Office de la Langue Franšaise will naturally refrain from dealing with them in its relations with businesspeople and merchants.

-- Louise Beaudoin is Quebec's minster of culture.

Copyright © 1997 by Louise Beaudoin. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.