The Montreal Gazette
Friday, May 301997
page A6

Internet users challenge court on poll ruling

by Andy Riga, ariga@thegazette.southam.ca

You'll have to surf to Florida if you want to read election-poll results this weekend.

Don't expect newspapers and TV newscasts to report survey results because the Canada Elections Act forbids them to do so in the 72 hours before the last polling station closes -- midnight tonight.

But an Ontario company has apparently found a way to get around the rule by putting the results of its ongoing Internet poll on a Web site on a computer in southern Florida.

The Net is also being used to circumvent rules that forbid people from anonymously promoting a particular party or candidate. After Elections Canada sent a warning letter to the creator of one unsigned Web site that was backing the Green Party, dozens of anonymous pro-Green sites sprouted up around the world in protest.

In this, the most wired election in Canadian history, civil libertarians on the Internet are foiling Elections Canada at every turn as the agency struggles to regulate the unwieldy and powerful new global communications medium.

``The whole business of trying to regulate the Internet just backfires because it's so trivial to make copies of digital information -- a seventh grader can do it'', said Jeffrey Shallit, a computer-science professor at the University of Waterloo, and vice-president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a non-profit group that promotes free speech on the Internet.

``As soon as people know that a site is being challenged, copies of it go out all over the world.''

Shallit's group is supporting Ottawa computer consultant Krishna Bera, who created an unsigned ``Vote Green'' Web site early in the campaign to see what Elections Canada's reaction would be.

The response came in a letter from the agency warning that it's illegal to post a political ad without identifying the sponsor. Under the Canada Elections Act, an offender could face a fine of up to $1,000 or a year in jail.

Bera replaced his site with a ``censored'' banner, but not before free-speech advocates from as far away as Norway copied his site. Today, there are more than 30 anonymous ``Vote Green'' sites.

The rule was put in place to prevent deep-pocketed special interest groups from anonymously buying ads to sway an election. But Shallit said you can't compare a citizen putting up a Web site to a big-budget ad campaign.

``Even if there is a slight amount of rationale for (the rule), it certainly does not apply to a single individual person with a Web page -- that's like somebody putting up a sign in their window'', he said, adding that the right to anonymous free speech is essential in a free society.

Shallit said his group hopes to launch a legal challenge against Elections Canada based on the argument that the advertising restrictions violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The poll restrictions in the elections law are already before the courts. The last court to interpret the law, the Ontario Court of Appeal, widened the poll-rule's reach last year to include not only new polls but also previously published polls and even unscientific, informal street surveys.

The Southam and Thomson newspaper groups are challenging the poll provisions in the Supreme Court of Canada. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association this week joined the fray, calling the restrictions arbitrary and patronizing.

Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley is interpreting the poll blackout to include the Internet because the appeals court said polls could not be published, broadcast -- or ``otherwise disseminated''.

Several Web sites dedicated to the election campaign have announced they'll yank all information about polls off their sites today to stay within the law. Online Direct, an Etobicoke-based Internet-polling company, preferred to simply get out of the way of the law by heading south.

Online Direct chairman Greg Vezina said a company in southern Florida that he refused to name has offered to put his company's survey results on its Web site. Right up until the polls close Monday night, Internet users will be able to visit the company's site to vote in its election survey and read the updated results.

``Canadian law doesn't apply in Florida and I think Canadians have a right to information right to the end of the campaign'', Vezina said. He added that Elections Canada will have a hard time against anybody who publishes polls on the Internet because the wording of the appeals court ruling is vague.


Online Direct:
http://www.onlinedirect.com/

Electronic Frontier Canada:
http://www.efc.ca/pages/elections/


Copyright © 1997 by The Montreal Gazette. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.