|Krishna Bera shut down his web site, which endorsed the Green Party, under pressure from Elections Canada.|
Krishna Bera, a 33-year-old Ottawa computer consultant, put together a World Wide Web page endorsing the Green Party and posted it anonymously.
He contacted Elections Canada to gauge its reaction of the web page, and within days received a letter from Raymond Landry, the commissioner of Elections Canada, telling him to identify the name of the sponsor of the advertisement.
"The purposes of this letter are to ensure that you are aware of the requirements of the Canada Elections Act", Mr. Landry wrote. "Sponsors of political advertising must indicate on their Internet advertisements the name of the group or individual who is authorizing the advertisement."
Mr. Landry quotes section 259.2 (1) of the Elections Act, which states that every person who sponsors or conducts advertising without identifying the name of the sponsor and indicating it was authorized by that sponsor is guilty of an offence.
The provision was intended to enforce election spending limits.
However, the penalty for Mr. Bera would be a $1,000 fine, or up to one year in jail.
"I can't afford either a $1,000 fine or a jail term. That's one reason I took down the page, but the other reason is that my point is to get discussion going on the issue, because this seemed to be put in there (the Act) without a lot of public review", Mr. Bera said. "It's very important that the right to anonymous speech be protected."
Mr. Bera's original web page ( http://www.achilles.net/%7Ekebera/anon/vote-green.html ) advocated voting for the Green Party, and listed the party's environmental concerns as well as offering a link to the Green Party's official home page. His page now simply reads: "Censored."
John Enright, a spokesman for Elections Canada, said he is unable to comment. "The commissioner acts on complaint, but he does not confirm or deny that a complaint has been received, or for that matter, that an investigation is under way", Mr. Enright said.
Mr. Bera's case has prompted the creation of at least 45 mirror sites --identical web site pages -- in 11 countries around the world, including Germany, Australia, Sweden, Spain, and the United States. At least two of those mirror sites have been created in Canada. Another page dedicated to the New Democratic Party has also been set up, and 11 mirrors of that page now exist, with two in Canada.
Steven Kisby, a Green Party spokesman, said the party appreciates the support but has some reservations.
"We are appreciative of (the mirror sites') support of the Green Party, but we do not fully support their position in this matter", Mr. Kisby said. "We do acknowledge that section of the Act is a backbone section to ensure a level playing field among the parties. If that section falls, our fear is that the election will be even more subject to who has the most money."
On the other hand, there's the issue of freedom on the Internet. "We're supportive because we agree with the principle that the Internet should be a level playing field as well. The Internet is unique in that individuals have an equal footing with very large corporations and very large government organizations. In that sense, it's a liberating medium."
But this isn't a clear-cut, David-and-Goliath case: Mr. Bera says he has an anonymous sponsor for his page. And he's not saying who.
"The page has an anonymous sponsor, so I can't tell you who, or if I got money for it", Mr. Bera said. "Personally, I'm actually against the idea of large organizations or parties sponsoring things anonymously and spending a ton of money on it. But the point is the way the Elections Act is worded right now, it doesn't distinguish between individual citizens who might be afraid for their jobs, posting something anonymously."
Mr. Bera, who is self-employed, said he is not a Green Party member, although he will likely vote for the party. He is a member of Electronic Frontier Canada, a non-profit group dedicated to civil liberties in electronic media, which issued a press release after Mr. Bera received his letter.
"This is censorship, pure and simple", said David Jones, president of EFC. "The right to speak anonymously is a fundamental one. Anonymity plays an important role for many Canadians: Alcoholics Anonymous, rape crisis centres, suicide prevention hotlines, anonymous tips to police through Crime Stoppers, or whistle-blowers that alert the public to government corruption."
In its release, EFC said it is prepared to challenge section 259.2(1) in court.