The Globe & Mail
Thursday, March 27, 1997

Officials rushing to plug cyberspace loophole

Elections Canada seeks to tame the wild Internet,
using legislation designed with other media in mind

by Mary Gooderham

Elections Canada is scrambling to jam its finger in the electronic dike.

Officials have decided that the Internet will face the same rules as other news media when it comes to disseminating public-opinion polls within 48 hours of election day and releasing vote results eraly on election night.

But parties and candidates will have the option of advertising on the Internet within two days of the vote, although they cannot do so in other media, because legislators did not consider the reach of the World Wide Web when they wrote the Canada Elections Act.

"It's such a new medium that it needs an interpretation", said Elections Canada spokesman John Enright. "The Internet doesn't change the Elections Act. We've got to figure out how it fits into the act."

He said that the office's legal services directorate ruled this week that the legislation does not always apply to the Internet when it comes to publication bans.

In the premature release of voting results, for instance, the prohibition does apply to publication "by radio or TV broadcast, by newspaper, newsletter, poster, billboard, or handbill, or in any other manner". That last part covers the Internet.

However, Mr. Enright said that the 48-hour advertising blackout applies only to "facilities of any broadcasting undertaking, in a periodical publication, or in a government publication". Those categories do not cover the Internet.

He said he does not think that such advertising will be a big problem, although he acknowledged that more and more parties and candidates are going on-line every day.

The immediacy and ubiquity of the Internet raises particular concern about the untimely dissemination of voting results on election night.

Recent amendments to the Elections Act staggering the voting hours and establishing counting periods in different time zones should make the problem less severe. Under the new voting hours - introduced so that people in the Pacific time zone can vote without the national results being a foregone conclusion - results will be disclosed almost simultaneously in most parts of the country.

Only the results in the Atlantic provinces will be known while B.C. electors are voting. Mr. Enright said that although those represent only 12 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, they could easily be distributed on the Internet.

The question of how to police the Internet is a difficult matter. Mr. Enright said that any breach of the act will be "investigated and prosecuted", although he added: "It's virtually impossible to have someone standing by every computer terminal in the country monitoring this."

John Courtney, a professor of political science at the University of Saskatchewan, said he doubts that Elections Canada can track every electronic infringement of the law. He said he thinks hundreds of legal questions will be raised by the office's interpretation of the law, for instance whether an individual in Newfoundland is allowed to send the results to someone in British Columbia by electronic mail.

"At what point do you give up and say you cannot control the dissemination of information?" he said. "Where do you draw the line? One wonders at the end of the day whether it's even worth it to try."

Mr. Enright said that in order to comply with the interpretation of the legislation, Elections Canada, which has its own Web site, will not release any results on-line until 10 p.m., Ottawa time, when the polls will have closed in British Columbia.

In the United States, where no national laws govern the release of voting results in different jurisdictions, election information on the Internet has proved popular.

On the night of the U.S. presidential election last November, record volumes of computer users logged onto vote-count sites offered by newspapers and broadcasters.

Some sites that specialized in political news were overwhelmed by the demand for results. The cable television news network CNN stopped promoting its own Internet Web site during its broadcast when the service bogged down under heavy use.

Prof. Courtney said that a "novelty factor" could play a role in Canada. Western Canadians will be especially tempted to surf the Web for election results before the polls there close.

"The voter in B.C. would have information available to him that the voter in Newfoundland did not", he said. "The question is: Does it affect how you vote or whether you vote?"

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