The Globe & Mail
Monday, June 2, 1997
page A13

Don't breathe a word, under penalty of law

Because of ever-expanding access to the Internet ... this is probably the last federal election that will be fought according to the old rules.
by Anthony Keller, akeller@globeandmail.ca

If you're anything like me, your choice in this election will be coloured by the polls.

Regular soundings of public opinion assured me that the Liberal cavalcade was going to sweep through my downtown Toronto riding with all the ease of water running downhill, so I voted for another party, as a conscious protest against both Liberals and Conservatives. But enough about the 1993 election. I'd love to give you the specifics of how the ballot I cast today was informed and influenced by scientific opinion polls -- but I can't. It's against the law.

Just my discussing the election without mentioning hard numbers or attaching names to them. For example, many of you remember the remarkable polling successes achieved by a certain party after the leaders' debate, followed a week later by polls that showed its hold over decided voters slipping in that same area of the country by the leader of another party (whose numbers were, by the way, firming up nicely in that other part of the country). Haven't the faintest idea what I'm talking about? Sorry, byt the Canadian Elections Act forbids my enlightening you further.

The law makes it illegal to broadcast, publish, or disseminate the results of any opinion poll regarding the election during the final 72 hours of the campaign. The Globe and Mail poll released last Friday, just before the blackout began, was widely discussed. On Friday. As of Friday midnight, we disseminators of information have been ordered to publish no new polls, and (thanks to a loopy Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that actually broadened the reach of the law) to cease reminding people of the results of old polls. Nor can anyone even publish unscientific polls, such as asking callers to dial a 1-800 number and say whom they prefer.

The main media organizations, including this newspaper, are obeying the law and upholding the blackout, though they continue to challenge it in court. Arguments will be heard before the Supreme Court later this year -- and the next Parliament is of course free to change the law any time it chooses.

In the meantime, however, others ware testing the limits, engaging in a little cutting-edge civil disobedience. Terry O'Neill, president of Mariner System Services of Edmonton, said late last week that his company's extensive election Web site -- you can find it at www.politicscanada.com -- would continue to carry a detailed archive of the major opinion polls of this campaign. Mr. O'Neill says that, barring intervention from Elections Canada, the polling data will be accessible throughout the blackout period.

Along with the archive of scientific polls, the Politics Canada site also has a viewers survey, asking people to cast a ballot for their preferred party. Perhaps because the company is based in Alberta, the results of this self-selected poll are biased strongly in favour of -- whoa! I'd better stop right there, lest I find myself facing a fine of $1,000 or up to a year in jail.

How Elections Canada will react to these Net violations remains to be seen. In one of the more bizarre acts of the campaign, the Commissioner of Canada Elections sent a letter to computer programmer Krishna Bera of Ottawa, ordering him to remove an unsigned Web site he had created. It urged viewers to "Vote Green". The problem, said Elections Canada, was that the site constituted a political advertisement, and should have been attributed to the Green Party (and the minimal cost of creating the site presumably deducted from the Green Party's election spending limit).

Mr. Bera argued that this was not a registered political advertisement, but just his personal opinion. Rather than face charges, he removed the exhortation and replaced it with one reading simply "Censored". Before doing so, however, 45 other Internet-proficient users in 11 countries had "mirrored" or copied his site. You can find links to all these sites -- which Elections Canada has been treating as regulated advertisements, not private political speech -- at the Electronic Frontier Canada Web site, www.efc.ca

Because of ever-expanding access to the Internet -- about 15 per cent of Canadians in 1997, probably somewhere closer to 50 per cent five years from now -- this is probably the last federal election that will be fought according to the old rules. You can already see the beginnings of the change. Call up the Web site for the Quebec City daily, Le Soleil, and running down the left-hand side of the page you'll find hot-link advertisements for an insurance company, a BMW dealership -- and a local Bloc Québécois candidate. Click the hot-link and you're carried to the candidate's page, and from there you can go on to the party's main home page.

Federal regulators have long divided a limited amount of time on television among each of the major parties. Those allotments are based on performance in the previous election and thus are tilted toward the status quo. There was a certain logic to broadcast regulations in a world of limited bandwidth, where there is only so much TV time to go around. But once the Net becomes as common as the television, that paradigm is out the window.

The Green Party can "broadcast" just as much as the Liberal Party on the Net. Both of them can cheaply and easily build a site containing extensive information on their politicians and policies. A national house-by-house mailing of the Liberal Red Book would cost millions of dollars -- but anyone with a computer and Internet access can download the Liberal platform at no cost to the party.

Not many Canadians will think of doing that, of course -- so the parties will make it easy for them. Next time, parties hoping to catch your eye will behave just as the insurance company, the BMW dealer, and the Bloc Québécois candidate for Beauport-Montmorency-Orléans do on Le Soleil's page. They will rent advertising in the form of a prominent hot-link on a newspaper Web site. Just click to find out more.


Copyright © 1997 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.