When you talk about regulating the Internet, two fundamental questions need answering.
First, does the unwieldy world of the Net require the same regulations as traditional mass media such as television and radio?
Second, is it technically possible to regulate the Net at all?
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, answered the first question for Canadians on Monday, deciding that government regulation would do more to hinder the development of this fledgling medium than help.
"Our message is clear", said commission chairperson Francoise Bertrand.
"The CRTC will not regulate the Internet, nothing on the Internet."
`There's no way the CRTC can dictate that Canadians see X amount of content. Once I'm on the Net, I can go anywhere I want.'
|-- John Nemanic,|
For the 31-year-old federal regulator, responsible for licensing and regulating broadcasting and telecommunications in Canada, the decision was a telling departure from traditional tight-fisted control of Canadian broadcasting.
"This was a very unique decision considering the fact that the CRTC has always hated a vacuum", said Paul Attallah, associate director of the School of Journalism and Communications at Carleton University in Ottawa.
"They pulled back from the brink this time. And that's something new."
And it may be a sign of things to come. The commission's mission statement is: "To ensure that Canadian communications contribute fairly and equitably to Canada's economic, social and cultural prosperity through regulation, supervision and public dialogue."
That could be due for a rewrite.
In the information age, when technology has erased borders and created a new form of broadcasting, regulation may have become an antiquated notion.
While the broadcast regulator can force radio stations, for example, to play 35 per cent Canadian content, such requirements would be impossible to impose online, said John Nemanic, president of Internet Direct Ltd., a Toronto-based Internet service provider.
"There's no way the CRTC can dictate that Canadians see X amount of content. Once I'm on the Net, I can go anywhere I want. If I decide to visit sites in Sweden, there's nothing anyone can do about that. The notion that you can impose a bureaucratic fiat does not exist."
And while CRTC commissioners stressed they were considering only the need for regulation, most experts agree the bigger issue is whether regulation is even possible.
And their overwhelming answer is: No. The vast, interconnected web of computer lines effectively erases geography. And without clear national jurisdictions, regulation is impossible.
"If a pornography site sits in the Turks and Caicos Islands, there's nothing Canada could do about it", said Nemanic.
"And if I had to have a certain amount of Canadian content on my site, and every time I wanted to change a graphic I had to fill out two forms and get the permission of a bureaucrat, I would just move the site to the States and sell back to Canadians."
The non-regulatory approach to the Net fits into a general hands-off trend around the world.
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a federal law called the Communications Decency Act, which would have made it a crime to send or display indecent material online. The administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton has consistently argued that regulation on the Internet should be kept to a minimum.
The same year, New Zealand chose an industry self-regulation approach as the most practical way of fostering the development of the Internet.
But the notion of regulating the Net isn't a dead issue.
Australians are currently debating Internet censorship regulations and the European Union assembly is also wrestling with regulations surrounding cross-border trade on the Internet.