The federal government must establish guidelines to stop the proliferation of illegal material on the Internet, the Information Highway Advisory Council said yesterday after a three-year deliberation on the emerging information society.
In outlining the main points of its final report, to be made public next month, the committee addressed content on the Internet -- what laws apply to it and how to ensure it has a distinctly Canadian flavour.
Dr. David Johnston, the council chairman, said the 29 members agreed laws dealing with matters of obscenity and fraud are adequate, but the federal government has to find a way to enforce those laws over the Internet.
How to police illegal information travelling over computer networks has been a major preoccupation of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, which has worked with the RCMP to establish guidelines for what information should be blocked.
Late last year, Ottawa-based iSTAR Internet Inc. denied users access to several Internet sites involving child pornography after complaints by customers. iSTAR is allowed to decide what information it wants to disseminate, but is under no legal obligation to block porn.
And whether Internet providers even should be responsible for the content on their networks is another heated debate the federal government must deal with, says the council.
Establishing laws that would make electronic commerce easier was another major recommendation. Businesses need to make electronic-business decisions "with certainty and authenticity", said John MacLellan, the chief executive and president of Bell Canada and a council member.
Instead, businesses are moving with trepidation, because no one knows whether a contract made over the Internet is legally binding, or if electronic-signatures will stand up in court.
One of the objectives of the council was to recommend action that would "reinforce Canadian sovereignty and cultural identity".
To this end, the committee made several suggestions aimed at ensuring, for example that content in French is available on the Internet, as well as other home-grown information and entertainment. At least three of these initiatives could cost taxpayers money.
One asks the federal government to set up an annual $50 million Canadian Multimedia Fund to develop and distribute products that reflect Canadian culture; French-language projects would receive one-third of the funding. (One of the concerns worldwide is that English is the dominant language on the Internet.)
The federal government was also urged to continue the Canada Television and Cable Production Fund at $150 million a year indefinitely, instead of ending it in two years as scheduled.
And the government should create a 16th Centre of Excellence -- research groups in various areas of science and technologies that bring together experts from academia and industry -- to help creators and artists adapt to new technologies in multimedia. All three proposals are expected to be at least partially funded by the private sector.
The council wants federal labour standards modernized to reflect the computerized workplace and new forms of employment, such as tele-workers who connect to headquarters via modem.
Whereas the first report of the committee focused on the importance of protecting Canadians' privacy on the Information Highway, it won't be a major issue in the final report.
That's because the federal government is already discussing framework legislation to secure individual privacy in an age increasingly characterized by the ability to swiftly and widely disseminate information.
But accessibility, also a previous theme, was underlined.
Existing federal programs to bring the wired world to as many Canadians as possible, such as Community Access and SchoolNet, should connect as many French-language communities as possible. Efforts should also be made to set up sites for public access to the Internet for those who do not or cannot own their own computers.
And the committee urged the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to make sure telephone access remains affordable, even if that means subsidies for the poor.