The Washington Post
Thursday, June 19, 1997

Quebec firm ensnared in language web

Agency insists French be featured on Internet

by Howard Schneider

TORONTO -- The computer guys at Montreal's Micro-Bytes store thought they had flavored their Internet site with enough French to help their Francophone customers find what they wanted, and, just as important in contemporary Quebec, to appease the officials who enforce the province's language laws.

The customers certainly seemed satisfied, although for many the world of gigabytes and modems has been accepted as an English one. Micro-Bytes, for example, advertised its tape backup units in French as a "sauve guard", but their French customers still asked for a "tape backup unit". They dubbed a computer's central circuit board a "calcumatrice" but were still met at the sales counter with the term "motherboard".

For the authorities at Quebec's French Language Office, however, a microchip just isn't a microchip unless it's petite. Expanding the province's language battles into cyberspace, the OLF, as the office is known in French, has ordered Micro-Bytes to post its Web site fully in French or face fines under Quebec's language charter.

Citing the company's predominant use of English on the World Wide Web, OLF spokesman Gerald Paquette said his agency decided the Internet is no different from brochures, catalogues, flyers, faxes, or any other commercial communication, which means that from their perspective French must come first. English or any other tongue is allowed, but only as a less prevalent second option.

If Francophones are used to asking for computer goods by English names, he said, that only validates the concern in Quebec and other French-speaking countries about English hegemony over "l'inforoute".

"They always use the excuse that the French don't use" the French technological terms, Paquette said. "We say it is the reverse. Put French on those signs and the French will use them. . . . If there is government intervention in language in Quebec, it is to create an environment comfortable for French speakers to use".

Whether the OLF can successfully police the Web is another issue, one that governments are struggling with elsewhere as they study whether and how to regulate the Internet's ungainly world of connections and users.

Micro-Bytes manager Marc Silverman said his initial thought when the OLF sent its first warning letters was to create a "mirror site" through an Internet company in Ontario or some other province, presumably beyond the reach of Quebec's language officials.

The OLF, however, said it would still fine him since his business is in Quebec, even if the Internet site originated elsewhere.

Silverman said he is planning to comply with the OLF's orders but that he feels the agency is stretching its authority by claiming jurisdiction over the Internet.

The province's language rules, in place since the early 1970s, govern many aspects of life in Quebec, requiring, for example, that legal documents be prepared in French and that store signs contain twice as much French as English.

The regulations even influence how civil servants present Quebec to the world. In a recent incident that many English Canadian commentators used to criticize the French separatist government of Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, a Quebec civil servant insisted on speaking French to a group of German entrepreneurs who were touring the province, even though they spoke no French and he was fluent in English.

The official said he was required to speak French because he had not received the necessary special permission to use English.


Copyright © 1997 by The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.