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.