TERMS OF REFERENCE FOR A STUDY ON THE USE OF THE INTERNET, NEW MEDIA AND SOCIAL MEDIA AND RESPECT FOR CANADIANS’ LANGUAGE RIGHTS
The Internet, new media and social media have become a way of life for many Canadians. These new forms of communication are affecting the lives of Anglophone and Francophone Canadians, who are using them in many sectors, including the public sector, the media and education. They are a preferred – and indispensable – way of sharing information, communicating, delivering services, networking and interacting. The use of these new technologies is spreading quickly, but are Canadians’ language rights being respected?
A. The public service
The Government of Canada uses the Internet as a platform to disseminate information quickly and to communicate with the public. Even though the Internet has been in existence for many years, some federal institutions still have trouble offering content of equal quality in English and French. In addition, more and more federal institutions are using the Internet to provide online services. However, Internet access may be restricted in some regions. It must also be acknowledged that the Internet is a place where most communication takes place in English.
§ Do Anglophone and Francophone Internet users who deal with the federal government have access to content in their own language and are the English and French of equal quality? What is the situation regarding online services?
§ What role do the federal government and civil society have to play in producing English and French content on the Internet?
§ Does the federal government provide support for the development of online content in French?
At the same time, social media are making it possible for groups all across the country to engage in live, instant interaction. Blogs, social networking sites, sharing sites and wikis are among the new platforms that are creating innovative opportunities for interaction between federal institutions and Canadians. They give Canadians a chance to provide input into policy- and decision-making processes. Within government, they provide new ways for public servants to work together. More and more federal institutions are using them as quick and instant ways to reach and communicate with Canadians. However, questions arise as to whether Canadians’ language rights are being safeguarded.
§ How do Anglophone and Francophone Canadians use the new platforms when they interact with federal departments and organizations?
§ Are official language minority communities able to make their voices heard through these new platforms?
§ To what extent do social media enable communities to be in contact with one another and make their needs known to or interact with the government?
§ What role do the federal government and civil society have to play with regard to the recognition of language rights in social media?
In the public service, social media are a new way for employees to work together. In regions designated bilingual for language-of-work purposes, federal government employees have the right to work in the language of their choice.
§ Is this also the case when employees use blogs, wikis, networking sites and other new forms of communication?
§ Are their language rights protected in this new electronic world?
The media are also grappling with the challenges they encounter in using these new forms of communication and endeavouring to respect language rights. Use of the Internet, new media and social media is coupled with another phenomenon: the trend toward convergence in broadcasting. On the one hand, newspapers, radio and television are called upon to use new technologies more and more frequently to entertain and share their content with the public (e.g., online newspapers, web radio, web TV). On the other hand, Canadian authorities encourage the use of a vertical integration model, where ownership of a programming company (e.g., television) and a distribution company (e.g., cable and satellite) is consolidated in one entity; programming and production companies are another example.
§ What impact can this have on protection of the language rights of Internet users in Canada?
§ Will Internet users be able to find media content that reflects who they are in the language of their choice?
§ Are Anglophones and Francophones in Canada interested in the same type of content?
§ What role do the media have to play in producing content in English and French for the Internet?
§ Do new media and social media respect language rights?
§ What impact could broadcasting convergence have on the language rights of Internet users in Canada?
§ Are community media at a disadvantage in this process?
Students, teachers and school boards are also having to adjust to new trends and the new electronic world. The Internet, new media and social media are tools of the future in schools because they foster real communication. They provide incentive for students, classes and teachers to work together. They stimulate the development of dialogue and cross-cultural interaction. In this context, questions arise about the role of new forms of communication in official languages education.
§ How are minority schools (English in Quebec, French outside Quebec) using these new platforms?
§ What about immersion schools and schools in which the second language is taught?
§ Can the Internet, new media and social media play a decisive role in official languages education?
§ What role can the education sector play regarding respect for language rights in the context of the Internet, new media and social media?
D. Accessibility and special needs
Use of the Internet, new media and social media raises questions about accessibility, irrespective of which official language is used, where the user lives or what the user’s specific condition is. There are Canadians who have a very limited knowledge of the two official languages. There are Canadians who live in remote areas where access to broadband Internet service appears to be limited. And there are Anglophone and Francophone Canadians who are hearing- or visually impaired or have other special needs. This raises questions about access to new forms of communication in English and French.
§ Are all Canadians able to use the Internet, new media and social media in the official language of their choice regardless of their condition or where they live?
§ Do blind, deaf and hearing-impaired Canadians face special challenges in terms of communication or access to services in their own language?
§ Are the technologies and equipment used by the federal government, the media and the education sector capable of meeting the linguistic needs of Anglophone and Francophone Canadians who have a hearing or visual impairment?
§ What about Anglophone and Francophone Canadians who live in remote areas?
§ Are small official language minority communities able to use new forms of communication to the same extent as other communities to contact the federal government, the media or the education sector?
E. Legislative, regulatory and policy framework
It is important to remember that the Official Languages Act (OLA) was passed before the Internet, new media and social media came into being. The Regulations made under the OLA were designed to meet the needs of an environment based on written communication and services provided in person or by telephone. The Regulations have not been updated to reflect the emergence of new methods of communication that are both interactive and instant. They also do not address online or virtual services. Some of the policies that relate to the OLA and the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada address the issues of official languages, technological innovation, new media, the Internet and electronic communications.
§ Is the legislative, regulatory and policy framework currently in place in Canada sufficiently clear on the use of new technologies and the protection of Canadians’ language rights?
§ Is that the case in all sectors, including the public service, the media and education?
§ Are the policies and programs currently in place able to ensure that new forms of communication are available to everyone everywhere?
§ Is it possible for the federal government to regulate new forms of communication to ensure that they meet the needs of Anglophone and Francophone communities?
In 2008, the Treasury Board Secretariat approved a guideline on the internal use of new technologies, such as wikis and blogs. In its Annual Report on Official Languages 2009–2010, the Treasury Board Secretariat stated that it was working to draw up official language guidelines on the use of social media within the federal government. “This work includes two components: one is the development of guidelines for the use of social media when the federal government is interacting with the public, and the other is the development of guidelines for use of social media within the government.”
§ Are these polices well tailored to the needs of institutions, employees who use new technologies, service users and the public at large?
§ Are federal institutions able to use social media and still comply with their linguistic obligations while maintaining the speed and versatility of new media?
§ Do the media and official languages educators have the tools they need to use the Internet, new media and social media in both languages?
§ Are there any programs that promote the use of new forms of communication in the media and official languages education?
In the 41st Parliament, the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages will be undertaking a study on the use of the Internet, new media, social media and respect for Canadians’ language rights. The study will essentially look at the obligations of the federal government, the media and the education sector under the OLA, the Regulations and related policies. It will examine several aspects of the OLA:
§ Communications with and services to the public (Part IV);
§ Language of work (Part V);
§ Development of official language minority communities and promotion of linguistic duality (Part VII).
The study will seek to meet the following objectives:
§ Identify the legislative, regulatory and policy framework currently in place in Canada that governs the use of the official languages on the Internet, in the new media and in social media.
§ Determine whether, in this new electronic world, the current system protects the language rights of Canadians in terms of communication with and services to the public (Part IV), the rights of federal employees in regions designated bilingual for language-of-work purposes (Part V) and whether it ensures that federal institutions are meeting their obligations regarding the development of official language communities and the promotion of linguistic duality (Part VII).
§ Determine whether, in this new electronic world, the rights of Anglophone and Francophone Canadians are being respected in the media and in official languages education.
§ Determine whether, in this new electronic world, all Canadians have access, irrespective of which official language they choose, where they live or any special needs they may have.
§ Identify best practices.
§ Recommend to the federal government ways of protecting the language rights of Canadians who use the Internet, new media and social media.
 Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Policy on the Use of Official Languages for Communications with and Services to the Public, effective 15 July 2005; Directive on the Use of Official Languages on Web Sites, effective 15 July 2005; Directive on the Use of Official Languages in Electronic Communications, effective 15 July 2005; Policy on Language of Work, effective1 April 2004; Policy on Management of Information Technology, effective 1 July 2007.
 Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Guideline to Acceptable Use of Internal Wikis and Blogs Within the Government of Canada, effective 27 November 2008.