A year and a half ago, the pranksters at Hip-Hype Inc. floated a Web page called the Canadian Internet Licensing Board (CILB) -- ostensibly the place to go to get your Web site licensed.
Suspiciously, however, it noted the deadline for applications was March 31, 1999. Yup, the day before April Fool's Day. Gotcha.
The site (www.cilb.com) is still there and looks oh-so-official. So much so that it had 11,000 hits within 24 hours of launch, along with 75 applications. Since then it has averaged 1,400 hits and 150 licence applications a month from 10 countries where more than 250 sites now post an "official" CILB licence, proving that a good joke cross all language and cultural barriers.
Flash froward to the dog days of summer and the Aug. 1 Canadian Radio-televison and Telecommunications Commission (www.crtc.gc.ca) edict proclaiming its interest in regulating cyberspace.
Just what roles should the CRTC -- the same people who brought you Canada's cable monopolies -- play in the regulation of the Internet?
Would the women, children, minorities, and indigenous peoples of Canada be better served if the Net were regulated?
Why yes, regulation. That's the ticket. But wait. Doesn't this sound like the CILB? Is it a joke? Surely?
Nope, while it sounds like life imitating art, these guys are serious. In retrospect, the CILB wasn't far off the money.
"We think there's a role for Harold Oser yet", says Carol Feeney, of Hip Hype (www.hiphype.com), laughing. She and Bill Sweetman created the CILB spoof to draw attention to their Internet publicity and marketing company.
(That's Oser as in H.Oser, director of the CLIB, by the way, whose authority is drawn from the Canadian Information Highway Act.)
All kidding aside, the scary thing is that no one in the Internet industry was ever consulted about the concept. The CRTC simply went off on its own tangent and while it's asking for public input, Feeney says the industry has yet to be asked for their spin.
"I mean, what are they going to do?" asks Feeney. "Build some kind of wall around Canada to protect Canadian content? At a time when we're promoting Canadian business over the Net, they want to do something like this?"
But it sounds so logical to a bureaucrat, probably even more so to politicians like Sheila Copps and John Manley, who both have their fingers stuck firmly into this sticky little pie.
Of course, the Net should be regulated. It contains content, doesn't it? It's accessed through telephone and cable wires, which both fall under CRTC control.
There are standards to be upheld, language rights to be enforced, people like Howard Stern to be admonished.
Hearings are being convened Nov. 23 in Hull, while submissions from the public are being accepted between Oct. 1 and 21.
It would be laughable if it were not so damned Canadian.
The idea is that the CRTC can set standards simply by getting legislation passed to require Internet service providers (ISP) to be licensed by it.
Should they fail to properly police e-mail or restrict access to naughty Web sites -- and we're talking politically incorrect here, not just pornography -- their licences get yanked. Better still, the CRTC could control the number of ISP licences and thus create another corporate communications cartel.
Is it just me, or is this whole thing more than offensive? It's downright frightening.
There's already a discussion site (www.newmedia-forum.net/home/home.html) launching Sept 22. and I encourage -- no, beg -- every Netizen to have their say.
Remember, the CRTC is the same bloated government lap dog so tuned into the reality of the street that it denied a licence for a dance radio station and gave it to the CBC.
Which leads to the realization that this is exactly why the CRTC is moving on the Net.
Technology is making the CRTC -- and most government control of communications -- increasingly irrelevant.
Digital signals know no borders and in the dawning age of low-orbiting satellites, controls over just who supplies what programming to your home or who provides your telephone service are incidental. Communications has become a commodity where the formula of price in relationship to content rules.
Like King Canute, the CRTC is planning to test the extent of its powers by ordering the tide to recede.
As Jim Carroll often remarks when talking about the effect of government regulation on the Net: "You might as well order the Canadian winter to stop".
Faced with its own looming impotency head on, this tacky, fiscally irresponsible power grab is a last-ditch and desperate quest for some legislative Viagra to perk up the agency's wasting muscle.
Frankly, I preferred the concept when it was really just an April Fool's joke.