Wired News
Monday, November 23, 1998

An Anne Murray Extravaganza

The Canadian government begins public hearings into if, when, and how it will regulate the Internet. What's in it for Canada?

by Pierre Bourque, pierre@achilles.net

HULL, Quebec -- In a move that could herald regulation of the Internet in Canada, on Monday the federal government opened hearings here into privacy, security, copyright, taxation, and social rights on the Internet.

The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, began 12 days of public hearings to cap off a public-comment period about Internet regulation. The CRTC is the federal department responsible for regulating the broadcast and telecom industries.

In a notice issued on 31 July, the commission said that it hopes to "offer Canadians a clearer perception of the potential benefits they may reap from the evolution of new-media services, as well as of the economic and cultural contributions of such services to Canadian society."

One critic fears that the endgame of the meetings is already clear.

"It's a bunch of stupidity", said Jim Carroll, co-author of the Canadian Internet Handbook. "They are not going to be able to accomplish anything from it. Everyone knows you can't regulate this thing.

"They have already said there will be some kind of tax or levy on Internet use to create a fund that will ... hand out grants to people to develop distinctively Canadian content", he said.

"We will end up with a bunch of pictures of Anne Murray all over the Internet."

Carroll said that the hearings constituted a "show trial" to justify Canadian content rules affecting radio and television, which he said have no merit on the Internet, a universe of limitless spectrum. In the broadcast world, the CRTC imposes minimum requirements for broadcasting Canadian content.

"CanCon" regulations are intended to preserve Canadian expression in mass media and are credited in part with launching the careers of Bryan Adams, Sarah McLachlan, the Barenaked Ladies, and others.

One industry leader welcomed government intervention and encouraged the commission to monitor organizations like AOL Canada to ensure that Canadian content gets top play.

"The CRTC should assert its jurisdiction over content packagers on the Internet", said Pierre Morrissette, president and CEO of Pelmorex, owner of specialty-television cable channel The Weather Network. The channel feeds content to AOL Canada.

"The CRTC should issue a policy statement with a set of expectations that Canadian content would be showcased", Morrissette said.

Carroll maintained that no shortage exists of Canadian expression on the Net, and the introduction of a grant system will only increase Canadians' dependency on the government.

Keith Kocho of Digital Media Champion, a cross section of Ontario-based new-media businesses, said that any regulation would inhibit international competition. He suggested instead that government should foster an incentive framework that would facilitate access to risk capital.

The CRTC said the hearings will raise issues regarding the percentage of Canadian content and foreign ownership of new media. For instance, many Canadian Internet service providers are foreign owned.

On Monday, CRTC vice chairman David Colville said that the Specialty and Premium Television Association is advocating a "super-Canadian Web site".

This idea was shot down by Interactive Multimedia Arts & Technologies Association, a group representing "700 multimedia practitioners", most of whom are small companies and individuals.

A group spokesman said, "The Canadian niche market is viable, but to contemplate creating something that does not already exist is not feasible."

In recent months, the commission has received hundreds of written submissions and email comments on issues related to safety, pornography, national security, competition, and the perception of human dignity.

The commission will hear from 85 interested parties across industry, government, and nonprofit sectors. Scheduled presenters include the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, America Online, IBM, Microsoft, UUNet, MCI WorldCom, PSInet, AT&T, and Sprint.

A second set of public hearings will take place 8 to 12 February 1999, with a final report to be released by the CRTC at the beginning of next summer.

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