The Toronto Star
Saturday, August 15, 1998

Censoring Net would sap its vitality

by Carol Goar

One of the beauties of the Internet is that there's room for everyone.

You can create a website, pay an Internet provider to put it on the world wide web and you're a citizen of cyberspace.

The capacity is limitless. There are already 150,000 websites in Canada and the number is growing exponentially.

The uses for a website are equally limitless. You can share information, sell practically anything, organize a grass-roots campaign, circulate your resumé, tell jokes, publish a magazine, offer online sex, or act out your fantasies. It is an electronic free-for-all.

The Internet is an overwhelmingly American medium. Only 15 per cent of the websites on your computer are Canadian.

It is also home to some highly distasteful stuff: child pornography, racist propaganda, tips for would-be terrorists.

These two concerns have led Canada's broadcast watchdog, the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to ask whether it should step in.

It has scheduled public hearings, this fall, to ask Canadians: "What should be the commission's role, if any, in regulating and supervising these services under the Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act?

The answer from Canada's 800 Internet providers is blunt: The meddlesome federal bureaucracy should keep out. "Power to the people is what the Internet's about. There's no need for external control mechanisms", says Ron Kawchuk, president of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers.

Worried parents are less sure. "There are some things on the Internet that cross the line", says Mark Genuis, executive director of the National Foundation for Family Research and Education.

There is no harm in having a spirited debate, which is all the CRTC is proposing at this point.

But if the federal agency decides to extend its role into cyberspace, it is going to encounter some enormous obstacles:

None of this means that the Internet is problem-free. It is a medium that can strip away an unwary user's privacy. It is a whole new domain for fraud artists. It can be used to circulate damaging rumours. It exposes children to sexploitation, nudity, and coarse language.

But in all of these cases, there are better solutions than government regulation.

Software manufacturers have developed sophisticated programs to prevent children from visiting inappropriate websites.

Reputable companies that sell their products on the Internet rigorously protect the identity and credit card information of their clients.

The Canadian Association of Internet Providers has won international praise for its determination to keep hate propaganda off Canada's small portion of the web. Only one Internet provider has tried to flout the group's guidelines. Bernard Klatt of Oliver, B.C. attracted international attention, this spring, by brazenly offering neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups a home on the web. But a combination of police pressure and public revulsion forced him to close down his service.

It is still important, of course, for consumers to be prudent and parents to be vigilant. No legal or technological safeguard is foolproof.

But it's hard to see what the CRTC could usefully add to what's already being done by police, Internet providers, software manufacturers, and responsible users.

The Internet is a young, exuberant, highly democratic medium.

State censorship, however well-intentioned, would sap its vitality.

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