Sunday, June 1, 1997

Plugged In: Birth of a digital gag order

by Russell Blinch,

TORONTO (Reuter) -- For the Canadian digital nation, the election of 1997 was almost a sideshow to a growing cyber scream of protest over a government's attempt to gag ``improper'' campaign Web sties.

The Canadian election, not unlike the U.S. election last year, was from the start a most wired affair. A myriad sites, personal, satirical, and corporate sprang up with a wealth of news and background on the federal election.

You could begin with the self-described ``The Mother of all Canadian election Pages'' ( ) or tap into Yahoo Canada's site ( ) to get a taste of some of the offerings.

The election was called 18 months early by Prime Minister Jean Chretien's Liberal government and all the polls showed the party would sleep walk to a second consecutive parliamentary majority in the June 2 election.

But some issues did manage to get in the way -- taxes, gun control, and the old Canadian standby of Quebec separation -- and these were debated on the Net and out on the hustings.

In the U.S. election that swept President Clinton back to power there were signs that the Internet played a role and helped to challenge the noise coming from the more traditional sources of newspapers and broadcast stations.

Jon Katz wrote in Wired's April 1997 issue that during the U.S. election he saw ``primordial stirrings'' of a new kind of a political nation, a Digital Nation. ``I began to feel I was witnessing a birth -- the first stirrings of powerful new political community.''

In the Canadian election, however, the debate on the Net was increasingly focussed on the country's electoral laws as enforced by Elections Canada ( ). People were most enraged by two big issues: that no one could produce campaign material without saying who sponsored it and that 72 hours prior to the election no one was allowed to publish results of a new or old opinion poll.

A non-profit group called Electronic Frontier Canada ( ) took on the cause of an Ottawa man who placed a big ``Censored'' on his Web page after Elections Canada told him to alter or remove it. He was advocating that people vote for Canada's Green party but contravened the law because he posted this site anonymously on the Net.

``This is censorship, pure and simple'', said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier. Electronic Frontier said more than two dozen Web sites mirrored the offending page, including numerous ones from outside Canada.

Jim Carroll, a well-known Canadian Internet commentator put the page up on his site ( ) as a form of protest. ``Efforts by Elections Canada to censor the Net are dangerous. It is extremely chilling to be in a situation in which political speech online is interpreted by an Ottawa bureaucrat to be an advertisement and therefore illegal'', he said in a statement.

The next uproar was the regulation that new or previously-released polls or even ``straw'' polls of Canadian voter intentions could not be published on the Net or in the rest of the media from Midnight Friday before the Monday election.

Newspapers in Canada have been challenging this law in the courts but most have agreed to comply until the issue is dealt with legally. Not so for some brave souls on the Internet who have vowed to keep polling and publishing opinion surveys during the blackout period.

One group, Online Direct ( ) received a warning letter from Elections Canada on their polling activities and decided to host its polling service in Flordia so it could continue to publish results right up until the vote.

Online Direct's move to host its surveys outside Canada and other actions by people willing to mirror so-called illegal anonymous sites highlights the difficulty if not the absurdity of trying to gag free speech on the Internet. Perhaps it's the birth of a unique Canadian digital nation.

Copyright © 1997 by Reuters. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.