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Wired News
Tuesday, June 8, 1999
9:00 am PDT

English Only? Non!

A photographer digs in his heels and refuses to comply with a Quebec law that requires him to publish a version of his commercial Web site in French.

by Matthew Friedman, mwf@netcom.ca

MONTREAL -- Photographer Michael Calomiris has run afoul of the law.

It's not that the authorities find the images in his Web gallery objectionable. It's his language they find offensive.

In Quebec, Calomiris found, it is illegal to run a commercial Web site in English. For that matter, one can't run a site in any other language other than French -- unless the author also provides the same content in French.

Calomiris, who lives in the town of Chomedy, was given one month, until 7 June, to either remove his site or create a duplicate French-language version. He did neither. Now he faces a fine equivalent to US$477, which doubles every time he receives another citation and refuses to comply.

"When I created the site, my aim was global, not local", said Calomiris, who went public with his troubles last week, a month after receiving his latest warning from the government of Quebec.

"We have a lot of customers in the United States, and those are the people I want to reach. They don't care if it's French."

But the provincial government does. Under the Charter of the French Language, Quebec is one of the few governments that regulates the language of Internet commerce.

Section 52 of the law specifies that if any company does business in Quebec, its "catalogues, brochures, flyers, commercial directories, and publications of that nature" must be in French. Other languages are permissible, but French is required.

"Other governments want to restrict content", said Gerald Paquette, a spokesman for l'Office de la Langue Francaise (OLF), the agency that enforces the language law. "We're not interested in that, but we are interested in protecting the French language."

As a French-speaking province in a predominantly English-speaking country, Quebec has enacted legislation aimed at protecting its language. This affects eveything from street signs to computer keyboards. However, the law makes no mention of Web sites and electronic documents.

That is a key omission, said Anthony Housefather, vice president of the English rights group Alliance Quebec. And not only that, it's beyond the pale.

"The provincial government is going way beyond the law", he said. "We would say that they're acting outside of their legal jurisdiction and presuming to have powers that they don't have."

Not surprisingly, the government doesn't see it that way. Paquette said that the wording gives the government all the latitude it needs to enforce the language of commercial Web sites.

"When you use a Web site as a medium for business information, it's no different than using printed material", he said. "If you're using your Web site to communicate with customers in Quebec, then you are required to obey the law just like everyone else. It's that simple."

Though Calomiris speculates that he has been the victim of an under-employed provincial bureaucrat looking to make work for himself, Paquette said that the government doesn't surf the Net looking for English Web sites. "There has to be a complaint, and we follow up on that", he said.

Housefather is suspicious about why the Quebec government only seems to target small businesses.

In June, 1997, the province singled out Microbytes, a Montreal-area computer dealer, for its English-only Web site. In that case, the OLF threatened to revoke the firm's certificate of "francization", a legal requirement for businesses with more than 50 employees. The owner relented, and removed the offending Web page.

"They go after the people who they think will be cowed", Housefather said.

"They don't go after the big multinationals who can just threaten to leave the province. And very few small companies react -- they'll just comply quietly. The OLF tries to make them think that if they don't, something terrible will happen. So you don't usually hear about this kind of crackdown."

David Jones, president of the online free expression group Electronic Frontier Canada, agrees.

"What happened to Calomiris and Microbytes will happen again and again if they keep going after the little guys and no one raises a stink", he said.

Calomiris has vowed to fight the order in court. If he loses, he will pay a fine that increases the longer it takes him to comply.

Housefather said that this kind of challenge is exactly what is necessary to have the law judged unconstitutional. "It's the kind of thing that we have to make a big fuss about."


Copyright © 1999 by Wired Digital Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.