OTTAWA -- The federal telecommunications regulator has decided to take a hands-off approach to the Internet in a decision that leaves the powerful new technology facing far less oversight than any other Canadian medium.
After a 10-month review of Canada's new-media industry, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (www.crtc.gc.ca) said there are already adequate Criminal Code provisions and self-regulation to handle on-line crimes such as the production of hate literature and child pornography and the distribution of bulk E-mail ads.
"We acknowledge the concerns raised by many parties on these issues", CRTC chairwoman Françoise Bertrand said. "In keeping with our approach to the Internet, however, we will not regulate offensive and illegal content."
Ms. Bertrand said regulation would cripple Canada's Internet industries, which she described as vibrant, competitive and producing plenty of Canadian content. Canada produces about 5 per cent of worldwide Internet content; about 5 per cent of all on-line material is produced in French.
The CRTC laissez-faire response was in accord with the vast majority of submissions it received. But not everybody is content.
Reaction ranged from glee among free-speech advocates to dismay among those who fear the Net's power to promote such things as race hatred and child pornography.
Vancouver lawyer Nisson Goldman, Pacific region vice-chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said the CJC was disappointed.
"I mean, anybody who's got a child who can press two buttons can pull up all kinds of hate on the Internet, and it's a large factor in disseminating that kind of material right across the country at the present time -- across the world, as a matter of fact. So, yes, we would very much like to see some kind of rules of traffic, I suppose, installed, which would hopefully put some kind of damper on that."
Free speech is a basic Canadian value, "but at the same time, hate speech is not free speech", he said.
Toronto lawyer Alan Borovoy, general counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, applauded the CRTC's stand. "It is a welcome decision. It is the right decision."
As he saw it, broadcast regulation developed largely to allocate scarce slots on the radio and television dials and there is no such scarcity on the Internet. Nor are special laws or regulations justified.
"If anybody commits an offence over the Internet, it isn't rendered any the less an offence because of where it was committed. . . . Statutes still apply, even the ones we disagree with", Mr. Borovoy said.
The federal regulator was expected to say it wouldn't try to control what many experts contend isn't controllable. But the commission went one step further by saying it won't even try to regulate traditional broadcasting -- such as radio and television programs -- transmitted over the Internet, which many observers expect to be widespread in just a few years.
"We are not regulating any portion of the Internet", Ms. Bertrand said during a press conference in Ottawa. "We feel there is no reason to intervene."
The commission defined new media as digital delivery of services and products that use video, audio, graphics and text.
But the writers of the report, one of the most wide-ranging to be written on the subject, refused to say whether they believe the Internet could be regulated by any governing body. "That hasn't been our focus at all", Ms. Bertrand said.
David Colville, the CRTC's vice-chairman, called the matter "rather hypothetical".
Rick Broadhead, co-author of The 1999 Canadian Internet Handbook, said he was disappointed because he wanted to hear the commission acknowledge that it didn't even have the power to regulate the Internet.
Reform MP Eric Lowther said he was surprised by the decision, which he called a welcome move away from government regulation.
"I was encouraged to see they are going in this direction", he said.
He said he was not worried that the move would allow wider distribution of obscene material and hate literature.
"There is excellent police expertise in Canada on tracking down violations of the Criminal Code on the Internet", he said. "There are filters that people can get, either at home or through their Internet supplier."
He suggested these were more effective ways to control abusive material on the Internet than government regulation.
The commission, however, left the door open for it to take a more activist role in future concerning the Internet. The Internet world is moving too quickly to definitively decide anything, Mr. Colville said. "I don't know if this is the final word."
Canadian broadcasters, who have been operating under tight CRTC regulations for more than three decades, say they support the commission's decision but want assurances that the Internet industry's open environment doesn't unfairly cut into their radio and TV businesses.
Michael McCabe, president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, said the regulations governing traditional broadcasters should be loosened if they start to lose advertising revenue to unregulated, new competitors.
He called on the CRTC to set specific warning signs for the broadcast industry -- such as a 1-per-cent loss in advertising revenue -- and change rules such as Canadian content regulations if those guideposts are passed. "I think at this point they don't know [the impact], and we don't know."