When the federal government declared the Internet a regulatory-free zone yesterday, it prompted new questions about the future of the country's 30-year-old cultural policy, devised as a life raft for Canadian programming drowning in a tidal wave of American content.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, has decided to wash its hands of the Internet, exempting Web content from the country's Broadcasting Act with no conditions and no time limit.
"If you are on the Internet, do whatever you want", said David Colville, vice-chairperson of telecommunications for the commission.
"We've exempted other things before, but perhaps not of this significance. It's a significant decision that may well apply to other technologies in the future as well."
The commission's decision comes as a relief to the vast majority of those in the Internet industry who want to see this new medium develop unhindered by the heavy hand of government. The commission, during a 10-month review on the issue, heard nearly 80 organizations and considered more than 1,000 submissions, largely favouring a hands-off approach.
"I think this decision says that the technology of the Web is significantly different than prior types of mass media like radio and television, where the amount of content that could be delivered was limited", said Keith Durrant, a vice-president with Extend Media Inc., a Toronto-based new-media firm.
"That isn't the case here. Any Canadian with an Internet link can be a producer. That's difficult to regulate from a draconian perspective."
More than a simple regulatory decision, the announcement is the most candid admission yet that the federal government's traditional policy of nurturing Canadian content through regulation has been rendered obsolete by technology, said some observers.
"Technology has outstripped their regulatory ability", said Paul Attallah, associate director of the School of Journalism and Communications at Carleton University in Ottawa.
"This is one of the very first times we've seen the CRTC acknowledge that changes in the make-up of society and technology have changed its role. And now they have to sit down and say: `If our rules don't apply in this situation, why would they continue to apply with other media?' "
Citing strong creativity in Internet development in Canada, the commission decided the unwieldy and organic Net is vibrant enough without government intervention and that any attempt to regulate Canadian new media "might put the industry at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace".
"The shift that has occurred in the soul of the CRTC is moving from the word `protect' to the word `promote'", said Gaylen Duncan, president of the Information Technology Association of Canada.
"It's a recognition that the protection model doesn't work on the Internet. This changes the game."
Some, however, don't like the look of the new rules.
Some groups had asked the commission to regulate Internet content, both as a way of controlling offensive material such as hate literature and pornography, and fulfilling the traditional role of reinforcing "the sovereignty of our country and our own cultural identity".
According to the decision, a radio station that broadcasts only over computer lines would be unregulated, free from such rules as playing at least 35 per cent Canadian content.
That means the commission has effectively removed its own regulatory teeth for the future, said some observers.
"This could be the beginning of the end for regulation in Canada", said Garry Neil, a cultural-policy consultant in Toronto who urged the commission to regulate the Internet.
"As telecommunications and the Internet become the method of choice for distributing content, it will lay the foundation for the demise of Canadian-content production."
But whether the non-regulatory approach proves to be culturally liberating or stifling is irrelevant, said Jordan Worth, a telecommunications analyst in Toronto. The decision was inevitable.
"The business priority is superseding cultural imperatives and public policy. Current governments and current international-trade legislation is moving to dismantle the kinds of cultural policies put in place in the 1930s to move Canada into what is considered to be a more competitive force internationally.
"We have to go with it and hope for the best."