The Globe & Mail
Thursday, May 8, 1997
page A4B

Internet political ads run into legal blocks

by Mary Gooderham

As a political advertisement it does not stand out, found at an obscure World Wide Web address that stretches to more than 50 characters.

"Vote Green!" it reads in black and white block letters, a sharp contrast to the medium's usual colour and flashy graphics.

The sponsor is not even a particularly fervent supporter of the Green Party.

But to Krishna Bera, the ad makes its point loud and clear. The 33-year-old computer programmer in Ottawa says he has broken the law by anonymously promoting a political party.

Neither Mr. Bera nor his political affiliation is identified anywhere in the ad's text in defiance of Elections Canada regulations that apply equally to newspapers, television, radio -- and cyberspace.

"I don't like any kind of censorship of the media, certainly not the Internet", Mr. Bera said. "Political speech is fundamental to democracy and we've got a chance to keep this media free and available for the public to use."

The issue has been raised by Electronic Frontier Canada, an organization that supports free speech in cyberspace. Mr. Bera is a member.

The Canada Elections Act says that "every person who sponsors or conducts advertising without identifying the name of the sponsor and indicating that it was authorized by that sponsor is guilty of an offence."

This month, Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley said the cost of the advertisement is also reportable as an expense by the party receiving the endorsement if it is done with the knowledge of that party.

David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada and a computer science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, said it does not make sense to apply the law to everyone who wants to make his or her political views known in the form of such an endorsement.

"On the Internet, everyone's a publisher", he said, pointing out that ads in traditional media are costly and difficult to produce. "In cyberspace, there are none of those obstacles."

David Somerville, president of the National Citizens' Coalition, which successfully fought restrictions on third-party spending, said the issue points to Elections Canada's misguided thinking that the expenditure of money sways votes.

He said that he does not necessarily agree with anonymously placed ads -- they "lead to a justifiable skepticism" about their credibility -- but he feels that the Internet is an important way to disseminate political material directly without the filter of the traditional media.

John Enright, a spokesman for Elections Canada, said last month that ads should have the sponsor's name or party affiliation on them and "possible infractions will be looked at on a case-by-case basis."

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