When Elections Canada officials put a cork on the publication of polls for the last 72 hours before Monday's federal election, they thought they had plugged all the leaks. They even clamped down on a 19-year-old Ontario tradition -- the Licks poll, published daily at the 14 Licks hamburger franchises across the province.
But there was nothing they could do to stop the leak in cyberspace.
"They don't have a way of controlling the Internet", said Don Sanderson, executive vice president of Online Direct, a site that found a way around an Elections Canada warning to obey the law. "I have a friend in Florida who mirrored the site from his server in the States. Elections Canada can't touch him."
And Online Direct wasn't alone. Other sites, including Environics and Angus Reid Polls, also set up cross-border mirrors or continued publishing poll results in direct violation of the law.
"The different approaches highlight the sense of confusion that's coming from the government", said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada. "Are they going to fine Angus Reid, which just left the results up, and not touch the sites that mirrored?"
At the center of the controversy is a section of the Canada Elections Act that went into effect in 1993 and had never been tested in a federal election. The section says that "no person shall broadcast, publish, or disseminate the results of an opinion survey respecting how electors will vote in an election" within three days of the actual balloting. Violators are subject to a C$1,000 fine or a year in jail.
Only a handful of Web sites skirted the ban. Neither of Canada's two largest newspaper chains, Southam and Thompson, published poll results after midnight Friday. The two papers are challenging the law in the Supreme Court. (In France, newspapers decided to defy a similar ban on poll publishing during the run-up to national elections 25 May and 1 June. As of Monday, the government had taken no action against the violators.)
"Really, there was very little resistance to the prohibition", said Jeffrey Shallit, vice president of Electronic Frontier Canada. "In fact, there was an effort to obey the law even to the point of absurdity. Some sites even removed old polls."
Electronic Frontier said the Canadian prohibition goes beyond simple abridgment of the right to free speech and creates an undue burden for new media companies.
"Newspapers don't have to do anything except not publish old information", said Jones. "But Web sites have to go through the tedious process of removing every reference to old polls."
As for voters, who re-elected Prime Minister Jean Chretien and the Liberals by a slim margin, they seemed eager to take advantage of any information they could get. Some 500,000 people looked at Online Direct's mirror site in the three days before the vote.
"It's an informed-voter issue pure and simple", said Online Direct's Sanderson. "We looked at the law, we looked at our options, and we said, 'To hell with it.' People liked that."