The Hill Times
Monday, April 28, 1997

Policing the Internet During the Campaign is Futile

by Kady O'Malley, komalley@arcpub.com

By the time this column goes to press, election fever will have totally subsumed all other aspects of political discourse. As Canadians across the country tune into CBC's Newsworld this Sunday to see whether the prime ministerial sedan makes that fateful drive through the gates of Rideau Hall to ask the Governor General to dissolve Parliament, few in the media or outside it seem to have recognized that, for all intents and purposes, this will be the first Canadian election to take place after the online revolution.

The increasing symbiosis between technology and politics will make this election the first real test of the power of the Internet to shape real events, outside the ethernet and into the ballot box. So it is both reassuringly and frustratingly Canadian to see that, rather than treating the Net as an unprecedented medium for grassroots political debate, the instinctive reaction of Elections Canada has been an attempt to squelch it.

In years past, the role of EC as all-seeing, all-knowing overseer of campaign advertising has largely been confined to the big players - the political parties, television networks, newspapers, and candidates.

But this year, the laws regarding campaign endorsements and criticism might hit a little closer to home for the thousands of Canadians who have ventured into the uncharted waters of the info-editorial soup known as the Internet.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley, our Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, has in recent weeks voiced his firm - albeit foggy - intention to hold online entities to the same strict standards as third-party organizations and official political parties. This would mean that any webpage, USENET posting, or IRC chat session that endorses, or criticizes, a political candidate or party must include the real name and political affiliation of its author, and its cost will be counted as official spending by the party of affiliation. While Kingsley has stressed that there will not be Internet police surfing the web under the aegis of Election Canada, he has also indicated that the system will remain complaint-based, and any violations will no doubt be reported since Canadians watch each other like hawks.

The proposal may, on the surface, sound eminently reasonable to many Canadians. So a few anonymous ne'er-do-wells will have to stand behind their words. It serves them right for uploading all that child pornography/hate literature/bomb-making information with which the newspapers keep telling us the Internet is rife.

But what it really means is that Elections Canada is effectively proposing to treat a webpage created by a high-school student in Alberta, that exhorts his neighbors to vote for the Green Party as essentially identical to an official campaign commercial produced by the Liberal Party of Canada.

The rules related to election and third party advertising evolved for precisely the opposite reason; they were designed to prevent elections, not to mention voters, from being bought by whatever party or candidate had the most cash to spend.

The idea behind Canada's more rigorous regulation than her neighbor to the South was to give all voices a chance to be heard in such critical public policy debates. While it's never going to be possible for the Marxist-Leninist Party to trump Reform in terms of spending, the limits and the scrutiny were developed to give at least a fighting chance to even the most marginal views. [John Turmel, where are you running this year?]

The Internet is, of course, a chance for even the most resource-strapped organization or individual to get these same views across to a far wider audience, at a fraction of the cost. It seems anathema to the very raison d'être of Elections Canada to go out of its way to ensure that even an impassioned debate over, say, gun control on the can.politics newsgroup be more strictly governed than an equally impassioned tête-à-tête on the same issue in a local bar.

As for anonymity; the provision that real names, not to mention political affiliations, are a prerequisite for a political opinion is ridiculous. For whatever reason, be it privacy, security, or just a natural reticence, many denizens of the Internet do not disclose their full given name to anyone with a web-browser, let alone their political affiliation, which for the vast majority of Canadians is, of course, None of Your Business.

To insist that those who do not choose to identify themselves have no right to endorse, or criticize a political party for the duration of the election is nonsensical, and - thankfully - absolutely unenforceable, given the ethereal nature of the medium.

There is no reason for Elections Canada to become the next Canadian agency to plunge into the doomed task of regulating the Internet. It's absurd, it's unnecessary, and it might just stifle the nascent digital democracy lauded by those very same politicians who were so quick to jump on the Information Highway bandwagon.


Copyright © 1997 by Arc Publications. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.