The Convergence
Saturday, May 21, 1997

Elections Canada censors political discourse on the Net

Government pressure forces web page offline

by David Jones,

- Censored -

Imagine you're watching a television documentary:

You see a timid young man handing out political pamphlets on the street. He's approached by an intimidating police officer who snatches one of the crudely photocopied documents. "Identity papers!" barks the cop impatiently. After quickly scrutinizing the documents, he leads the young man off in handcuffs. The narrator says he's held in jail for 6 months -- until after the election.

Where is this horrible violation of human rights taking place? Where is there so little regard for the kind of free speech so essential to a functioning democracy? ... communist China? ... war-torn Bosnia? ... the former Zaire?

In Canada, it is illegal to distribute anonymous political advertisements, either as leaflets handed out on a street corner, or as web pages on the Internet. Upon conviction, the penalty can be a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment for up to a year.

Krishna Bera, a 33-year-old computer consultant based in Ottawa, found this out when he received a letter from Raymond Landry, the Commissioner of Canada Elections -- the top legal bureaucrat responsible for enforcing Canada's election laws.

The letter, dated May 5th, singles out Krisha Bera's "Vote Green!" web page, highlights section 259.2(1) which makes anonymous political advertisements illegal, and ends by instructing him to "comply with the Canada Elections Act by identifying the name of the sponsor" of the web page.

"Since I refused to identify the sponsor, I had to take the web page offline", said Bera. "I thought about moving my web page outside Canada, but it seems to me that the issue of free speech has to be settled at home."

- Anonymity -

Canadians as a whole are a complacent bunch. We can afford to be, since we generally have life pretty soft in comparison with people in many other parts of the world. But this means most of us are ill-prepared to stand up and argue in favour of our right to express political viewpoints with anonymity.

There are lots of instances where anonymity clearly has great value: Alcoholics Anonymous, rape crisis centers, suicide prevention hotlines, Crime-Stoppers, and whistle-blowers that alert us to government corruption.

And remember, when we cast our vote, we do so by secret ballot.

Anonymous political speech is important so that opinions can be expressed without fear of reprisals -- from neighbours, employers, customers, or the government.

As Canadians decide who should form the government that will lead us into the 21st century, we shouldn't have to fear losing our jobs as a consequence of backing a party that doesn't get into power. Being forced to remain silent isn't the solution.

- Control -

Those in favour of the government's ban on anonymous political advertising on the web talk about the need to enforce campaign spending limits, but making it easy to catch politicians breaking the law isn't sufficient justification for robbing all Canadians of their right to free speech.

Others point to the risk of deep-pocketed corporations "buying the election" or pranksters causing mischief, but in a functioning democracy we need to place some reliance on the common sense of citizens.

Rather than let the government decide who can say what, and in what manner, aren't we're much better off letting people decide for themselves which messages they should choose to pay attention to? After all, even if there are thousands of "Vote Green!" web pages, aren't we still free to ignore them?

While some restrictions might make sense for a passive, one-way medium like TV, it isn't clear they should also be applied to an interactive medium like the Internet, where people only view the content they choose.

Lawyers for Electronic Frontier Canada, this country's leading organization devoted to preserving freedom of expression and the right to privacy in cyberspace, are preparing to make an application in court to see section 259.2(1) struck down as an unreasonable infringement of freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right to an informed vote, and the right to privacy. Fighting the government in court will be very expensive. If you would like to help, please contact EFC.

- Paint the Web Green -

The global Internet community has had an interesting and more immediate response to Canada's crackdown on anonymous political web pages. Mirror sites have started to pop up all over the place. The first was created by Canadian Internet Handbook guru Jim Carroll.

"People don't understand their freedom of speech until they've lost it", says Carroll. "I find it rather chilling, and indeed, disturbing, that there should be an attempt to stifle free speech on the Internet."

At latest count there were 25 mirror sites in 6 different countries (Canada, Australia, England, Germany, Belgium, and of course, the United States)

Now it's time for Elections Canada to either "Put up or shut up". Either they start charging defiant Canadians like Jim Carroll or Bret Dawson who are mirroring the illegal and anonymous "Vote Green!" web page, or they admit that the Internet cannot be regulated.

"As a matter of policy, Elections Canada will neither confirm nor deny whether any investigations are ongoing", says John Enright, public relations officer for Elections Canada.

But an inspection of access logs on various web servers reveals that staff on Elections Canada computers were busy Wednesday and Thursday, surfing the Net and investigating "Vote Green!" web pages.

Will charges be laid? Time will tell.

David Jones is a computer science professor at McMaster University, and president of Electronic Frontier Canada.

Copyright © 1997 by David Jones. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.