The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, June 4, 1997

Advocates of Net freedom brace for next
round in battle with Elections Canada

Election Canada mum on possible charges

by Jake Rupert, jrupert@thecitizen.southam.ca

The battle between Internet freedom advocates and Elections Canada is about to heat up.

Several computer junkies across the country are waiting to see if Canada's election commissioner will lay charges after they posted anonymously sponsored political ads on the World Wide Web and relayed east coast election results to provinces where polls were still open.

Both of these actions are in contravention of the Elections Act, but Elections Canada, who will only look into possible infractions of the act if a complaint is made, is being tight-lipped about any actions.

"The policy is not to confirm or deny if any investigations are underway", said spokesman John Enright. That's it. Investigations will be made public if, and only if, charges are laid.

And the ball seems to be clearly in Elections Canada court because rather then fear charges, Internet freedom advocates say any action against computer Internet users will be used during the next phase of their fight.

"We're planning to challenge certain sections of the Elections Act that effect the Internet in Federal Court", said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontiers Canada and a professor of computer science at the McMaster University in Hamilton.

Dr. Jones says Elections Canada is effectively curbing people's freedoms of expression and association by enforcing existing rules demanding the sponsor of any political advertising to be identified.

"Freedom of expression includes the right to speak anonymously", Dr. Jones said. "What they are effectively saying is that you only have the right to say something if you are prepared to identify yourself. Otherwise, you must remain silent."

"An idea should stand or fall on its merits. Not who said it."

Anonymously sponsored political advertising on the World Wide Web became an issue last week when Ottawa computer consultant Krishna Bera received a letter from Elections Canada demanding he disclose the sponsor of his site devoted to the Green Party or face a $1,000 fine.

Bera refused to provide the information, and changed his site to read "Censored". But, in protest, 52 mirror sites -- exact copies of Mr. Bera's original -- popped up. Most of mirror sites, created easily with a few strokes of the keyboard, were made by people in more than a dozen other countries, but at least two were made by Canadians.

"People in Canada are cynical about the political process, and part of the reason is because it is so tightly controlled", Dr. Jones said. "The Internet is all about the free exchange of information, and Elections Canada is interfering with that process."

Dr. Jones is also interested to see what Elections Canada's reaction is to several people on the east coast who transmitted news of the Liberal's demise in that area to others on the west coast.

"There were lots of people doing it", he said. "I don't know if people were actively using the information because you would have had to wait to the last possible moment, then race out and vote." But the information was there to be had.

"Elections Canada could make an issue out of it by charging people who posted the information, but what good would it do to fine some computer nerd in Halifax $200 for telling his buddies in Saskatchewan that the Liberals weren't doing too well?"


Copyright © 1997 by the Ottawa Citizen. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.