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The Toronto Sun
Wednesday, October 14, 1998

Is the CRTC really a Net threat?

by Ian Harvey, connect@sunpub.com

DEALING WITH THE DEVIL

CRTC vice-chair David Colville may seem like the devil himself to Netizens angered by what they see as an attempt to regulate the Net. But Colville says people are missing the point and there's no plan to control cyberspace.

David Colville knows the devil is in the details.

The CRTC vice-chair (www.crtc.gc.ca) opened a can of worms earlier this year when it was announced the regulatory agency would hold public hearings into the new media - aka the Internet. He was immediately roasted by Netizens who took umbrage at the slightest suggestion the CRTC was about to regulate the Web.

The barrage included those who branded the CRTC the "Commission for Repression and Thought Control", (it's actually Canadian Radio and Television Commission), demonizing Colville and his colleagues.

But Colville says the CRTC is a getting a bad rap.

"There is no hidden agenda here", said Colville from his Nova Scotia office as he prepared to leave for Washington to speak at a telecom meeting. "The CRTC is not pressing to regulate the Internet."

Specifically, he said, the CRTC asked: How does the new media affect regulation of traditional broadcasting undertakings of radio, TV and cable; to what extent does new media constitute services already defined by the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts; and what other recommendations should be made to government on other broader regulatory issues?

Online Friday

Colville takes the hot seat when he brings those questions to Canoe this Friday, from 11 a.m. to noon, for an online forum. It should be interesting. (Transcript of David Colville Chat)

A quick reading of responses so far at the CRTC's comment site (www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/proc_br/notices/1998-82e.htm) shows the majority of respondents already think there's an attempt to have the CRTC control the Web. They've shot back with a big fat raspberry.

"Consider where Canada would be today, if horse-and-buggy, supporters had managed to have automobiles outlawed in 1900", wrote Walter Dynes in his submission to the CRTC. "I consider it the ultimate insult to Canada to claim that exposure to American culture will cause Canada to roll over and die. If Canada really is that fragile, maybe we don't deserve to exist."

Indeed, "Hands off our Net!" just about sums up the emotions at play in a random sampling at another forum specially created for ongoing discussions of the issue (www.newmedia-forum.net).

But Colville says the goal is to determine the ground rules before technology gets us all in too deep.

"There's an argument to be made that broadcasting television or radio on the Internet could fall under the Broadcasting Act", he said. "And if it does, what role should the CRTC play? People want to know what the rules are before they get involved."

Even if the CRTC decides it does have the authority, it may opt to invoke the exemption clause within the Broadcast Act, he said.

"We may also decide to do nothing and come back and revisit the issue in 18 months or two years", Colville said.

Many corporate submissions have urged a "let-the-marketplace-decide" stance, he acknowledged, but others have suggested that government policy could help Canadian content providers compete more effectively.

Internet telephone

And there are other issues on the horizon, such as Internet telephone (using the Net for long distance calls) which he says the current CRTC sees as serving to increase competition.

There are also a few grey areas where the commission may develop a role of referee.

Many, for example, said "spamming" (sending of bulk, junk e-mail) is an outrage that ought to be addressed by the CRTC.

After porn, the next biggest issue is probably that of Canadian content. Most submissions argue that the marketplace should decide and oppose regulation. Though, interestingly, our own parent corporation, Sun Media, suggests in its pitch that content sites need support from Canadian ISPs who should be required to post links to Can-Con sites to ensure a stream of traffic and attract advertisers, who ultimately pay the freight.

As regulating the Net, Colville knows that you can't legislate against what people want. And in the months and years ahead, when the Internet allows almost anyone to start a radio station and broadcast to a global audience, or to start their own television channel, regulations will seem laughable.

Unlike the public airways which are limited and must be managed and ultimately controlled by an arbitrating agency like the CRTC, there is no such scarcity of resource in cyberspace, the Broadcast Act notwithstanding.

Ultimately it is we the people who will decide. Because, that's where the real power is.


Copyright © 1998 by The Toronto Sun. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.