The federal agency that regulates Canada's radio, television, and telephone industries has formally asked Canadians if they want their government to start looking after the Internet as well.
Last week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) called for public discussion on what role -- if any -- it should have in regulating matters such as online pornography, hate speech, and "Canadian content" on the Web.
One electronic rights and freedom advocate did not mince words in condemning the plan.
"Fuck the CRTC", said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, an organization devoted to preserving the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the digital age.
Jones said that Canadian bureaucrats have increasingly seen the Internet, with its streaming video and audio content, as a broadcast medium. As such, the CRTC might be able to impose some measures on Net content providers to "protect Canadian heritage", he said.
"The CRTC has a paternalistic view that it knows what is best for Canadians and that the Canadian people are incapable of making their own decisions", said Jones, a professor of computer science at McMaster University in Ontario.
Canadian radio and TV broadcasters are required by law to carry a certain amount of programming created by Canadians. The regulations are intended to preserve Canadian identity in the face of what many Canadians see as an overwhelming American media influence. But Canadian media have always been fickle about the rules.
For example, one radio station in Toronto includes, in a tongue-in-cheek tone, "mandatory made-in-Canada" segment during broadcasts of The Howard Stern Show. In addition, non-Canadian broadcasters like CNN often find their advertisements removed [by cable companies] and replaced with ads for Canadian advertisers under the principle of "simultaneous substitution".
Jones called such protectionist measures "government sanctioned censorship" and feared the CRTC may be looking for the authority to impose similar requirements on Canadian Internet service providers (ISPs).
"A content producer should be able to have their message presented the way they intended it. I don't think an ISP or anyone else has a role in messing with that message", Jones said.
Rick Broadhead, co-author of the Canadian Internet Handbook, said that the question of government regulation of the Net is not new, but this is the first time that the feds have officially asked for public input.
"I think [Internet] regulation wouldn't be a bad thing to have", said Broadhead. "It will have a limited impact -- by its very nature the Internet doesn't have any borders."
"I think it would be great if the CRTC would get involved in regulating junk email on the Internet -- that's one of the areas where it could have great impact", Broadhead said.
But the CRTC may first tackle the question of how to extend Canadian content, or "CanCon", regulations to Web pages. And Richard Rosenberg, vice president of the Electronic Frontier Canada, said they might have an easy time doing so.
"Canadians worry, and I think rightly so, about US content overwhelming us", Rosenberg said. "The CRTC may have made some bad policies in regard to this, but this part of the CRTC mandate is likely to be, I think, more readily accepted by Canadians than other regulatory functions of content."
Chris Axworthy, the Member of Parliament who represents part of Saskatchewan in the House of Commons, would like to give the CRTC some power over the Internet.
In June, Axworthy introduced a bill that would require Internet service providers to be licensed by the CRTC. The proposed legislation would also require those ISPs "minimize the use of the Internet for the publication or proliferation of child pornography".
Axworthy told Wired News that the bill aims to require ISPs to help fight child pornography by requiring them report it to the police when they find it. It would also put service providers under the jurisdiction of the CRTC, along with television and radio broadcasters.
"ISPs are the ones who are making money off the Internet ... It seems to me that they have an obligation to pay attention to what they are making money from", Axworthy said.
Axworthy submitted the bill in June, and it is awaiting action.
Mark Genuis, executive director of the National Foundation for Family Research and Education, said while he appreciates the intent of Axworthy's bill, the federal government is ill-suited to monitor content on the Net. Instead, such matters should be handled by Canadian families.
"We want the Internet regulated very heavily, but by those who can do the best job of it, and we think [those people are] parents. There is no way the government is going to be able to regulate the Internet in a manner that is satisfactory and efficient", Genuis said.
Genuis said the government could play an appropriate role in raising awareness of the pitfalls of the Internet, and the use of filtering software. It could also work to apply already existing laws to the Internet.
"If the issue is child pornography, that's already illegal [in Canada]", Genius said.
"If the issue is about Canadian content, God only knows how they'll regulate that -- but I don't think these are the only issues on the CRTC's mind."
The CRTC -- which could not be reached for comment -- is seeking public debate on the issue in the New Media Forum, in cooperation with McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.
The deadline for receiving public comment is 15 January 1999.