Some of the Canadian companies that connect people and businesses to the Internet -- and all that it contains, from brilliant research and electronic communities to sleazy sex and hate mongers -- have agreed to a code of conduct.
But it's a code that will have little if any impact on Internet content and that might actually open up the community of Internet service providers (ISPs) to prosecution, a top industry observer says.
"This is going to do nothing to remove objectionable material from the Internet", said Jim Carroll, co-author of the bestseller The Canadian Internet Handbook. "This is the flea biting the elephant.
The seven-point code is intended to demonstrate to the public that ISPs can police themselves, and consequently they and the more than one million Canadians who use the Internet should be spared any government intervention.
Many inside the ISP industry believe the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are keen to lay charges against an ISP to test a variety of legal issues, such as who is responsible for illegal material, including child pornography, and what privacy rights do subscribers to Internet services have.
The Internet has developed such a high profile that it is inevitable that some legislator will file a private member's bill aimed at controlling it, said Margo Langford, chairwoman of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers' code of conduct committee.
"An awful lot of government departments are looking at the issue", said Ms. Langford, who is also general counsel for Ottawa-based Istar Internet Inc., Canada's largest ISP.
"It has been discussed in the caucuses of some parties", she said. We're still in discussion with police forces. They would dearly love to do a test case."
The code agreed to by the CAIP, representing about 10 per cent of Canadian ISPs, does little more than state that the companies agree to obey the law. It has no legal standing, and given the international nature of the Internet, is virtually unenforceable.
"We're looking for feedback from all ISPs", Ms. Langford said. "These are pretty generic guideline-type principles. There will probably be some fleshing out of ideas."
The seven points in the code of conduct are:
"It's much too vague", he said. "The RCMP can go into any small ISP and say 'Let me see all your E-mail files', and the ISP will comply because he thinks that's a legal requirement."
He said the ISPs should guarantee protection of users' privacy until they are presented with a court order.
Ms. Langford said she believes that's exactly what the code requires, but added: "I understand the concern."
The CAIP's code of conduct also seems to cross a critical line on the issue of who is responsible for the material that is placed by users on ISP server computers.
ISPs have been arguing that they cannot be held legally liable for the content that customers put on ISP servers -- which can then be viewed by anyone with an Internet connection -- because there is simply too much material to be able to monitor.
"We can control what is on our servers", Ms. Langford said. But she said that can only be done after someone has complained about material.
"We can't actually go out there and look for it, but if it's pointed out, let us know, rather than coming and seizing the servers."
Preventing a seizure of servers is critical for the ISP industry. Istar, for example, provides network resources for 150 smaller ISPs. If it was shut down for any reason, scores of businesses and tens of thousands of individuals would lose their Internet access.