The Hamilton Spectator
Monday, May 27, 1997
page B3

Elections Canada getting needled for Internet ignorance

by Andrew Dreschel

At first blush, it's a story about a big bad bureacracy squelching a little guy's attempt to voice his political opinions.

But on closer inspection, it goes much deeper. It's about a bunch of computer heads deliberately needling Elections Canada for its ignorance about the Internet.

Electronic Frontier Canada, a non-profit organization devoted to the preservation of civil liberties in electronic media, issued a press release late last week chiding Elections Canada for censoring the Internet.

"Krishna Bera didn't want to be a criminal", began the release, "he just wanted to express his opinion during the federal election. His mistake? He chose to express his opinion anonymously. Now he's been threatened with fines or imprisonment by Elections Canada."

The release went on to explain that Bera, a 33-year-old Ottawa computer consultant, composed a world-wide-web page called VOTE GREEN and published it on the Internet. The Commissioner of Canada Elections eventually sent a warning letter to Bera: either alter the web page or run the risk of a charge under the Canada Elections Act.

Bera's web page, which advocated voting for the Green Party of Canada, merely contained a list of the party's environmental concerns and a link to its official home page.

So what was his offence?

Expression

Because he chose not to identify who wrote or sponsored the page, Bera had contravened a provision of the Canada Elections Act prohibiting anonymous political advertising. The provision is an attempt to enforce election spending limits imposed by the law.

Bera now find himself at the centre of a dispute over freedom of expression in cyberspace. Electronic Frontier Canada has taken up his cause and is preparing to challenge the relevant section of the act in court.

EFC president David Jones, a professor of computer science at McMaster University, says the issue is about censorship, plain and simple. He says the right to communicate anonymously is fundamental and essential. He cites public pay phones, Canada Post, Alcoholics Anonymous, rape crisis centres, suicide prevention hotlines, and Crime Stoppers as examples.

Jones says banning anonymous political web pages and arbitrarily deciding they are aadvertisements is an attack on free speech.

But Bera is not exactly a naif in all this.

The release also neglected to mention that Bera is a member of Electronic Frontier Canada and actually contacted Elections Canada to get its interpretation of hos VOTE GREEN web page. Bera refuses to say who sponsored the page, other than it wasn't EFC.

There's no question the whole thing has the whiff of a staged media event. EFC has been prodding Elections Canada for weeks to clarify whether the prohibitions on anonymous advertising apply to the Internet. Now it has its answer.

The issue, however, goes far beyond accusations of censorship. It is yet another example of the inability of traditional authorities to control the free flow of information in the computer age.

Bera, rather than facing a $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail, pulled his web page and replaced it with one that simply reads CENSORED.

But Bera's original offending page is now being "mirrored" on 29 different web sites in seven different countries around the world, including several sites in Canada.

Obviously, when it comes to policing online information, no doesn't mean no.

Jim Carroll, co-author of the Canadian Internet Handbook and a member of EFC, was the first to mirror Bera's allegedly illegal page. "I think it's very dangerous to political free speech for someone to state my opinion on the Net is an advertisement. That is absolutely chilling to the democratic process."

Carroll says Elections Canada hasn't grasped that the Internet has given everyone their own printing press which over time will have a significant impact on the electoral process.

There could be no clearer illustration of Carroll's point than Elections Canada's standing policy neither to confirm nor deny whether it is investigating complaints of alleged violations. The agency won't even confirm or deny that a warning letter was sent to Bera.

But anyone can read it on EFC's web site: http://www.efc.ca/


Copyright © 1997 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.