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Why The Surprise?: The Longstanding Application of Quebec’s Language Laws to the Internet

Over the past couple of days, there has been mounting attention on the application of Quebec language laws to a Facebook page. The issue arose when the OQLF advised a Chelsea boutique that they had received a complaint about its English-only Facebook page. While many are reacting with alarm, the reality is that Quebec’s language enforcement body has applied the law to websites for many years.

Complaints about the issue date back at least 15 years, when a complaint was filed against an English-only photography website. While a Montreal lawyer claims the issue has not been challenged in court, the issue was in fact litigated in Reid v. Court of Quebec, a case involving the online sale of maple syrup. The Quebec Superior Court upheld the application of the language laws to the Internet ruling that the law applied to commercial publications and that included websites. Further complaints seem to pop up every few years  (presumably because the system is complaints-based), but the legal analysis is pretty straightforward. The law applies to all commercial publications – including websites – involving a business with a Quebec location or address that is selling goods or services. The location of the server or even the intended audience is irrelevant – what matters is the real-space location of the business.

A Facebook page may be more nuanced than a commercial website, since some Facebook pages may not involve any commercial activity (though some businesses may use social media in lieu of a website including offering goods for sale).  If there is no commercial activity, there is a plausible argument that the law does not apply. With commercial activity, however, Quebec’s law has been clear for more than a decade: the language laws apply.

Leaving aside discomfort with language laws altogether, the application of language laws to the Internet strikes me as wholly unnecessary since it is very easy for anyone to translate any webpage into the language of their choice. Yet absent a change in the law, the only surprise about the application of the law is that anyone is surprised.

16 Comments

  1. David Collier-Brown says:

    I’d be tempted to post a google translate link…
    … as the link to a secondary-language version of the page.

    You could offer all sorts of languages, including Klingon (;-))

    Of course, you’d want a pretty good translation of the primary languages here, so as not to annoy your customers.

  2. How do you say “Chelsea” in french?

  3. BUT…
    i’m not a lawyer, but, I think this phrase may be mistaken:

    The Doc said:
    “If there is no commercial activity, there is a plausible argument that the law does not apply.”

    Back in the 90′s when I contacted the Montreal Gazette about Micro-Bytes being forced to shut down it’s website. No one believed me. I had to bug a bunch of people there. it took 2 days but it made front page (guess reporters weren’t as connected as they are today to verify it).

    In the micro-byte case (though unchallenged), they sold nothing online. All they had was a price lists and part descriptions. No online commerce back then.

    On their front door in Point-Claire, they had a sticker in english only as well, “HP certified”. They had another sticker but I no longer recall what it was (Think it was Sony certified reseller). The OLF hit those stickers as well as the english only website. It was a 2-for-1 with Micro-Bytes.

    Was the Micro-bytes website commercial? It was a commercial (presence) with only advertizing. Nothing more. With a downloadable price-list. All in English only.

    So back to this Chelsea boutique.

    Is it really any different than the Micro-Bytes case (english stickers aside)? Not at all. There is no commercial activity on the facebook page (that I noticed). But, it is advertizement, and a point of contact.

    As far as I know advertizing and points of contact is to be in French, or both. Not just English.

    While I don’t necessarily agree with it, it is what it is.

    Let’s extend this to twitter for the heck of it.

    What if this Chelsea boutique offered support on twitter, but only in english? Any different?

    Is facebook not also a point of contact for support (or return issues) when it is in the company’s name?

  4. BUT…
    Also there is a bit of a political thing that has been going on in Chelsea Quebec for the past 5 years or so.

    Lots of Ottawa residents have cottages there, retired there at the cottages and moved there.

    In that small town you have these vigilantes (lack of a better word) going around taking pictures of peoples car license plates. They then submit this some place (not sure where).

    The gist of the matter here is that if you live in Quebec for x-months a year (even if you are from Ottawa and may have a place in Ottawa you spend 2 months a year in), some law requires you to have Quebec plates.

    So the vigilantes submit all these pictures and people get fined and told to submit to the higher Quebec tax rate and plate/license/registration rate. etc.

    You should be able to google all this that’s been going down in Chelsea.

    Chelsea is a nice little place that attracts lots of local Ottawa people. But there is a political group there that keeps tabs on everything.

    It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the same people taking pictures of peoples cars are also checking up on local boutiques.

    Just takes one complaint.

    Same happened in that area with a guy who had a sign for the Ontario tourists that said “corn for sale”.

    Lots of english in that area. Lots of french people themselves putting up english signs to try and make some money. Being from Montreal, never in my life have I seen so much english only as I have is that area.

    Language vigilantes. A group of people out doing a language-police job.

    This store owner is likely very aware of it all since she lives with it and in it.

  5. Web site vs Facebook
    I understand how the OQLF could say “your web site must French and English.” But I’m not sure how that applies to Facebook – which is a web site for sure, but not in a traditional sense.

    The difference is the pages of my web site are, more or less, static. At least, I control their content. When I update something in English I can immediately the equivalent French page.

    But I have no control over what goes into the comments on my Facebook page. Sure I could make the initial post in French. But what stops all my friends from exclusively English comments?!

    It seems to me the OQLF spending a lot of time over something that will ultimately prove to have a negligible impact.

    I also seem to remember the case of a Quebec company with an English-only web site that was told they couldn’t sell to Quebecers unless they translated their web site. And their response was “Ok. Our products aren’t for the Quebec market anways, no one here would buy our stuff.” I wonder how the OQLF responded to that one?!

  6. I’m wondering about the distinction between web advertising and broadcast advertising. Clearly an advertisement aired on CBC does not need to be 60% french, 40% english so there is some distinction there.

  7. Double-Standards
    Check this out:
    Language watchdog applying double standard, boutique owner says, after Quebec defends English Facebook page
    http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/02/28/office-quebecois-de-la-langue-francaise-eva-cooper/
    QC gov (which of course has a Quebec address) has english only websites, and english only facebook accounts

    LOL that is some funny double-standars there.

    If the majorty of this womans clients are indeed from Ontario, then it can reamin in english (for a website that is, no clue about facebook).

    In Hudson, QC, there was a watch maker whose main business was Ontario people. When the OLF complained about his english only website his arguement was that his niche clientele were from Ontario.

    OLF actually sent people to review his accounting books to trace where the money came from. And yup, from Ontario. So they left him alone and let it stay in English.

    Obviously to be on facebook is to branch out (just like the Quebec gov is doing with their english only facebook pages).

  8. Silly
    If this woman had a website that was not in French I could see that being a problem, but she doesn’t own the page, Facebook does. It is all quite ridiculous and Quebec needs a reality check.

  9. Not only does she not own the site, she doesn’t own the information on it – Facebook does.

  10. @Mike and @Ole Juul: I wonder how that claim would hold up in court.

    Denying responsibility because some crazy company says it owns all data you post on their site is a silly thing to think about.

  11. @LeLutin: Yes, very silly. I hope it gets sillier.

  12. What is social media?
    I just took the time to read that linked Ottawa Sun article. That’s really good promotion for Delilah’s business, and it is in English. Being on the internet, it is also available in Chelsea. People do calculated publicity stunts all the time. I’m sure that’s not what Eva Cooper is doing, but what’s so different between the various on-line publications?

    Actually, to partly answer my own question, it just occurred to me that Facebook is not public. It is a walled garden with, albeit different levels of visibility. It’s blocked here, and even if it wasn’t, wouldn’t you have to be a member to join up with Cooper there? Presumably the law has this stuff worked out, but it all seems like nonsense to me.

  13. it’s embarassing
    By the way the language police doesn’t necessarily have the support of the population at large but it’s like most government agencies/bureaucracies we don’t have much control over it. The pasta thing a few months ago was so silly that they had to say out loud that they would be more careful about frivolous cases but I guess that was the spokesperson speaking and that the employees didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to receive months ago.

  14. Quebec’s tiny fascist fist in a sea of sense
    Some days it seems like Quebec is trying to be the uneducated stereotype Canadians are seen as south of the border. We shake our heads and facepalm every time a US state tries to outlaw some commonsense thing, yet we still allow Quebec to treat it’s people with as much contempt.

    Why do we even have the Official Languages Act when it’s just used as a weapon to keep people who speak any other language but French out of the federal government workforce?

  15. Michelle Sullivan says:

    I have checked with l’OLFQ
    I have written to l’OLFQ on this issue for clarification and, thankfully, finally received the answer I was hoping for.

    - Facebook allows you to target by language – the OLFQ is fine with the application of this functionality. What’s important to them is that content be available in French. This resolves the issue of “messy pages”. See the facebook.com/fidomobile page for an example of how this works. By changing your Facebook language settings from English to French (or vice versa) you will note that content on the Fido page switches languages in response.

    - l’OLFQ does not expect you to police user comments. People are free to use the language of their choice on your page. Your responsibility is limited to the need to provide the content YOU provide in French (which then allows you to also provide it in English).

    It seems to me that this is a simple question of respoect and, indeed, should not be a surprise to anyone who does business in Quebec.

    What is disappointing to me is that this is a tempest in a teacup. It seems to be that both the Chelsea boutique owner and l’OLFQ were ignorant of the linguistical targetting option on Facebook. I’ve informed both. Hopefully now that they are no longer ignorant the business owner will provide French language content as well as English language content, and l’OLFQ will educate small businesses who don’t have the benefit of access to the services of a social media consultant such as myself.

    I indicated to l’OLFQ that clause 4.4 of the documentation they provide online to busineses with regard to language regulations needs clarification. It came as no surprise to me that spokespersons said in interviews that they were in “uncharted territory”. It is obvious to me in reading this clause of the document that, despite their significantly larger resources, l’OLFQ hasn’t taken the initiative to seek counsel from specialists. All of this could easily have been avoided.

    Cheers
    Michelle
    http://www.michellesullivan.ca

  16. Thank you for doing that and posting it for us Michelle. It does help clear things up. This also clarifies to me the difference between the content you provide, and the content you cause to be provided.