The Globe & Mail
Thursday, August 6, 1998

CRTC goes on-line, finds work

Regulators think Net needs help. Why?
Bureaucracy abhors a vacuum.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has always excelled at denying indisputable truths. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its request for submissions on its role in regulating the Internet.

To its credit, the CRTC warned that it really isn't sure what it's doing at this point. "The Commission wishes to underscore the fact that it brings to this proceeding no preliminary views with respect either to how new media should be defined, or to what role, if any, the Commission should play in their regulation or supervision", it wrote. This small amount of humility, though, is little comfort for those who are familiar with its expensive and ham-handed attempts to beef up Canadian content on radio and television.

We assume that the CRTC is driven in this undertaking by the desire to squeeze more Canadian content out of the Internet, and to protect us from pornography, hate propaganda, John Tesh fan sites, and other Net pollution. In doing so, the commission proves that it does not understand why millions of people have been drawn to the Internet in the first place.

The Net is a global emporium of information and products. For the most part, it does not require customers to fork over subscription fees and postage for the privilege of receiving information. For the sharply declining price of a PC, software and Internet access, anyone can tap into the same global distribution channel used by Time-Warner, Microsoft, and Ned's Saloon. It is the world's biggest shopping centre and bookstore.

With that in mind, the commissioners would be well advised to learn from the demise of the U.S. Communications Decency Act. Designed to protect children from offensive material, it sought to block everyone from seeing or reading things that were perfectly legal, thought offensive to some people. The act would have outlawed and controlled material on the Internet that, when it appears in bookstores or at newsstands, is treated as constitutionally protected speech. The U.S. Supreme Court wisely struck it down.

A reasonable commissioner might suggest instead that the CRTC make available information on various software manufacturers that specialize in Internet-supervision products. Programs such as Net Nanny, which blocks access to Web sites most likely to contain coarse language or nudity, is far more useful to parents than a raft of new regulations and bureaucrats.

The CRTC should also understand that many laws already apply to Internet content. Child pornography is illegal both on- and off-line, and police departments here and abroad have been able to successfully prosecute its purveyors. Internet libel and slander are similarly illegal, although tough to regulate -- but they're also difficult beasts to slay in the off-line world. In any case, this is a job for the courts, not the CRTC.

We hope that the CRTC has managed to get its collective head around the fact that the Internet has become too large and too important to control in dribs and drabs of regulatory gobbledygook. There is no oversized federal bureaucracy micro-managing the content of the nation's bookstores and newspapers. Does cyberspace need one? Just because the CRTC has a hammer doesn't make the Internet a nail.

Copyright © 1998 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.