Last Friday, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission asked Canadians whether they want it to regulate the Internet and other new media.
The CRTC seeks written submissions on the subject before 23 November 1998, when it will hold a public hearing in Hull. Contributions to an on-line forum at www.newmedia-forum.net will also form part of the public record, although for some obscure reason, the forum won't accept messages before September 22.
As an afterthought, the commission also seeks help defining the term, "new media".
The announcement provoked a caustic reaction within Canada's Internet community, where a fiercely libertarian ethic prevails.
Jim Carroll, co-author of the Canadian Internet Handbook, wondered whether the commissioners had "collectively ingested acid" as the only possible explanation for their "collective loss of sanity".
"We should (also) provide Environment Canada ... the ability to regulate how much snow falls in Manitoba each year", Carroll told an e-mail list maintained by the anti-censorship Electronic Frontier Canada (www.efc.ca). "And while we're at it, let's put in place a law that the St. Lawrence Sea Way Commission must examine every molecule going through the river to see if it has been contaminated by pollutants." "I can't wait for Shiela Copps to outlaw split run banner advertisement on websites", said Lawrence Lee, another EFC poster.
Carroll needn't bother posting his tongue-in-cheek speculation about the commissioners' sanity or proclivity for pharmaceuticals to the CRTC's own on-line forum. Moderators there will block any comments that "may be construed as discriminatory, promulgating hatred, or obscenity, or defamation of any kind". That's precisely the sort of Goody Two-Shoes mentality that worries freewheeling netizens. It's what that drove the commission's witless adventure with the V-Chip, that bureaucratic attempt to hardwire morality into the television sets of the nation.
As Carroll's comments imply, the first response of net libertarians is to say that what the CRTC proposes simply can't be done. The CRTC can't control what Canadians read and say on the Internet any more than the International Joint Commission can monitor every molecule flowing over Niagara Falls.
That's because the Rand Corp. think tankers who devised the Internet as a communications system for the US Defense Department in the 1960s designed it as an electronic fishnet whose multiple alternative pathways would render it impregnable to nuclear attack. That same structure, the theory goes, renders it immune to censorship since, in the famous words of one pioneer, "the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it".
Technically, this is probably no longer true. The net relies increasingly on high-capacity backbones where censorship could theoretically take place, although the prodigious quantity of digitized information passing through such conduits still posses onerous challenges to would-be enforcers of government-issue morality.
A more profound civil libertarian objection holds that attempts to regulate the Internet conflict with the very core of its revolutionary appeal: it is humanity's first many-to-many communications medium, the ultimate answer to A.J. Liebling's observation that freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.
Millions of us now "own one", and our capacity to communicate with others around the world is, in that sense, no less powerful than Time Magazine's.
The problem comes with the Internet's increasing capacity to carry voice, music, and moving pictures -- all of which fall within the CRTC's traditional regulatory bailiwick. The Internet is arguably already the most efficient way to communicate still images. As a medium for transmitting two-way speech, it's at about the level of CB radio, and rapidly improving. Television quality video is only a few technological leaps away.
So what happens to a huge (400 bureaucrats), expensive ($33 million per year), and entrenched agency when the human activity it regulates is subsumed by a medium that defies regulation?
Answer: It asks for submissions, calls a hearing, and wonders what the heck it can do to justify its existence.