Facebook en français s’il vous plaît?

'stie calice

[Ed.’s (me) note – this post has been updated at the bottom to reflect new developments in the story]

Hoo boy, I do not want to write this post. If there is one thing that scares me it’s wading into the language wars in Québec. I love this province; it’s been my home for all my life, I speak and work in French, I have francophone friends, and we all get along thanks to our shared love of soft runny cheeses, alcohol and nos Habitants (not necessarily in that order). So I don’t like rocking the boat, ya know? But we’ve got ourselves a legitimate internet law question here which I must chronicle. And possibly a legitimate legal debate between lawyers! So ‘stie calice de tabernac, let’s do this.

If you have avoided the news and social media over the last five days, you may not know what I’m talking about. Here’s the scoop. Eva Cooper runs a boutique clothing store in Chelsea, Quebec called Delilah {in the Parc}. The store’s Facebook page has posts that are in English for the most part. Cue the Office québecois de la langue française (OQLF). After receiving a complaint from someone in the public, the OQLF sent Ms. Cooper a letter telling her that her Facebook page must be in French, because it was in violation of the Charter of the French Language (aka Bill 101).

Huh?

Yup, that happened. Pundits were quick to react. There was outcry, there was debate. But what about the law? Well, that’s why I’m here, goddammit.

On Friday, I was contacted by Yahoo! News to comment on the issue. Here’s what I said. In case you don’t want to click over, I was pretty explicit – yes, in my very humble legal opinion, it is conceivable that the OQLF is right. Do I think that is politically right or just another dumb fucking move like Pasta-gate that will continue to put the Québec economy in the tank and make us the laughingstock of North America? No comment.

Today I read another article where another lawyer said bullshit – “the Quebec government can’t regulate Facebook because it is fleeting, free communication.” I know that lawyer (Michael Bergman) and respect him tremendously. He is brilliant and has accomplished more in his career than I ever will. But respectfully, I may have to disagree. Why? Well, as I said, let’s go to the law.

The French Language Charter is pretty clear when it comes to advertising in this province. It stems from article 52, which reads as follows:

Catalogues, brochures, folders, commercial directories and any similar publications must be drawn up in French.

You know me, I always bold the important parts. “Any similar publications” has already been held to include websites, which are, in essence, online “brochures”. This is settled law. I said as much in a CTV interview I gave just last month when the issue came up in another context. There is no debate on that question – companies with establishments in Québec must have French (or bilingual) websites.

Now, do you make the jump and say that a business’s Facebook page is the same as a normal website that advertises the business? I say probably. Look at the Delilah page again. It has contact information, messages about opening hours, pictures of new products and clothing lines available at the store. The purpose of the page is to drive people to the store to buy clothes. If that ain’t advertising, I don’t know what is.

Now, I of course am a modern, hep, internet plugged-in dude. Where does advertising end and “fleeting communications” begin? Fucked if I know. All I know is there are LOTS of companies who now eschew traditional websites and just set up a Facebook company page instead. This boutique is clearly one of those. So if they are using their Facebook page as their website, well, hmm, QED?

But where should it end? Should the advertising in French rules apply to Twitter? Well, that seems like more “fleeting communications” to me. Mr. Bergman says “Social media is far from advertising, it’s an interactive dialogue”. I agree with that, but imho a company Facebook page is still advertising. But what about Pinterest? Google+ (if anyone used it)? Should the French rules apply to any number of other social media sites? Hell, what about to blogs? (/looks around). Uh oh.

These are questions that have not yet seen the inside of a Quebec courtroom. And they are going to have to be, sooner or later.

POST-SCRIPT

As I was checking the links in my draft of this post, I was looking at the OQLF website. I visit the site quite often, because I use their “Grand dictionnaire” which is very useful. Alas, there is a new message on the home page which I just noticed. It reads (in part):

Qu’il s’agisse d’une publicité commerciale imprimée ou diffusée sur un site Internet ou sur les médias sociaux, les entreprises établies au Québec doivent permettre aux consommateurs québécois d’obtenir de l’information en français sur leurs produits et services.

(my translation: Whether it is commercial advertising that is printed or on an internet site or on social media, companies with establishments in Québec must allow Québec consumers to get information about their products and services in French)

That whole message is new. That part about social media is very new. I am sure it was written since this whole thing happened. The most recent Wayback Machine snapshot of the site (Febuary 14, 2014) does not have that same homepage message. The OQLF PR spin machine is at work. In light of this modified home page, my feeling about the law has not necessarily changed, but my feeling about the whole situation is, uh, no comment.

POST-SCRIPT UPDATE! (Tuesday March 4th 8:30 A.M.)

We have a compromise! Reports are coming in that Ms. Cooper and the OQLF have reached a detente of sorts. The store will be allowed to post English content, but French has to be there too. The CBC link says:

A spokesperson for the OQLF told CBC that Facebook posts advertising the business must include French, but that Cooper can continue to post in English if the conversation is of a social nature.

So this to me is vindication? As I argued above, the advertising has to be in French. However, it is good to see the OQLF recognize the “social” nature of social media. I am impressed they were able to see the distinction. It’s an important precedent, I think. Of course, the new message I mentioned in the post-script is still on the OQLF website, unchanged. Hmmm.

Anyway, please continue to comment on this blog, so it will always be considered a conversation of a social nature.

POST-SCRIPT UPDATE UPDATE (5 P.M. Tuesday)

Had the pleasure of being on CJAD in Montreal today, discussing the issue and taking callers’ questions! Here’s the link to listen. Enjoy. Or not.

Posted in: Internet law basics
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16 Responses to Facebook en français s’il vous plaît?

  1. moeman says:

    Très bien écrit Monsieur Al.

  2. Marc says:

    I’m not sure I witnessed the “debate” about this subject matter. Le Journal de Montreal barely even mentioned this event, TVA only has a small article with no judgments – only stating that Ms Cooper was investigating her options. While the National Post, Ottawa Citizen and the Sun all spewed their usual drivel which excites the comment sections to compare Quebec to Nazi Germany and/or that Quebec should be kicked out of Canada. This controversy is rather one sided and seems to be addressed to anglophones that are not even living in Quebec who need to get mad about something.

    • allen says:

      I agree Marc. I did not see much “debate” either. That’s just the way I write :)

      The outcry was a product of the anglo media, and their ridiculous attempts to stir up shit. Which is why I didn’t want to write about this. I don’t want to contribute to that anglo hysteria crap. It’s just an interesting legal question to me.

    • Eva Cooper says:

      Hello Marc – It’s me Eva!
      I think you can research the radio interviews I did in French – many of them, and then you can also listen to my message centre on my store phone to get a real sense of who contacted me and when.
      Take a listen to the interview I did with Paul Arcand. Many people listened to that interview – not to mention radio Canada.
      And last but not least, read the thousand messages I have on the Delilah {in the Parc} FB page. It might take you several nights to get through them …. but it will be worth it. Just take a tally of those coming from Quebec.

      Enjoy – E.

      • allen says:

        Thanks for stopping in and reading Eva! I hope I was fair to you. Was just my honest legal opinion.

        • Eva Cooper says:

          Allen – All good on my end. I was very curious about the new message on the OLF home page (as you indicate).
          I have ‘shared’ your page with reporters, as I think it is very important for them to know this change/edit has taken place.
          I’ll be sure to let you know when I get the written letter from the OLF
          so we can take a look at the ‘wording’

          All good things,
          Eva Cooper

  3. GoldenGirl says:

    Next post: can Montreal and the Habs (and runny cheese) separate from Quebec?

  4. Zvi Leve says:

    Thank you very much for your commentary and interpretation. I have a related question: Given that we are now in the ‘internet age’ and many companies have virtually no boundaries, is it reasonable to demand that a Québec-based company maintain a French web-presence (on FB or otherwise) even if their target market is *not* in Québec? In my opinion, commercial enterprises should be responsive to their clients, but it should not be the role of government to tell them who their market is – the market itself will take care of that!

    I worked for a company which had to completely redo their web-site to comply with OQLF requirements (which they did), but they drew the line at translating all of the material which was available on their web-site (which included an entire ‘library’ of professional articles!). Similarly I am familiar with a number of start-ups who may ‘work’ in French, but they cannot be bothered to invest in creating a French web-site because it has virtually no relevance to their business plans.

    • allen says:

      Thx Zvi! You wrote:

      “is it reasonable to demand that a Québec-based company maintain a French web-presence (on FB or otherwise) even if their target market is *not* in Québec?”

      Well unfortunately I am not here to discuss what’s reasonable, we’re talking about the law here! ;-p. I can only say what the law says, and that law says if you have an establishment in Quebec, your website must be in French. As a policy matter, to make startups do their sites in French when their audience is not Quebecers, well…

      • Zvi Leve says:

        Does the law say anything about such cases where the target market is not in Québec? I am not the lawyer here, nor do I generally follow such things….

        Some of the start-ups have gotten quite a bit of media attention (in the French media) but I see that there is still no French on their web-site. Then again, there is not really any indication where they are located (in the fine print it says “built in Montreal” but they really could be anywhere), so perhaps they are just under the radar.

        • allen says:

          Interesting points Zvi. But for the most part, “target market” is kind of irrelevant. Even if a Quebec company only wants to target ROC or the States or whatever, there may still be Quebecers interested, and they would have the right to have the French website

        • Luka says:

          Of the options you prevodid, I would strongly suggest Montreal. The parks and gardens around the Olympic stadium are gorgeous, there is La Ronde amusement park and there is a neat place you can rent a quadracycle near the ports in Old Montreal. No trip to Montreal is complete without getting at least a couple of dozen genuine wood oven baked bagels so head over to Rue St. Urbain and get yourselves some bagels. The kids will love them. Ottawa, the nation’s capital city, is only about an hour and a half away and there are a lot of things to do there as well.Enjoy your visit to Canada

  5. steve says:

    Great post Allen.
    Did you know the “with the child molesters” legislation is once again before parliament disguised as an anti bully bill? Last time Open Media made them re consider, but this time we do not have Vic making the obvious obvious. Sign the petition if you do no believe warrant less search of everything is not a good idea.

  6. Hadulf says:

    Oh you rocked the boat! Good read.

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