Wired News
Tuesday, May 27, 1997

Canadian Election Law Prompts Web-Site Battle

by Ashley Craddock, craddock@wired.com

Online privacy advocates are vowing to fight enforcement of a Canadian election law that has been used to force the removal of a Green Party Web site that did not carry the name of its sponsor.

Electronic Frontier Canada said late last week that it plans to go to court in the case of an Ottawa man, Krishna Bera, who became the target of the national election board after he posted an anonymously sponsored site called Vote Green.

Earlier this month, Elections Canada told Bera to either identify the sponsor behind Vote Green, take it down, or face a possible $1,000 fine or a year in jail. Krishna took down the site, but some 25-plus mirror sites have popped up webwide since the original disappeared.

The law under which the board acted says, "Every person who sponsors or conducts advertising without identifying the name of the sponsor and indicating that it was authorized by that sponsor is guilty of an offence."

At stake, says David Jones, president and co-founder of Electronic Frontier Canada, is Canadian citizens' right to anonymous political speech. "People shouldn't be put in the position of either staying silent on political issues or identifying themselves and taking their lumps", Jones said. "There's a substantial amount of mischief caused by allowing governments to control political discourse."

But others say the question becomes more complex when one moves from the need for anonymity in private or potentially dangerous communications to the need for anonymity in political debate - especially when that debate takes the form of advertising.

"People need to know who's funding public figures so they can judge who's influencing them", said Paul Hendrie, communications director for the Center for Public Responsibility, which tracks federal campaign spending in the United States. "Otherwise politicians can just go out and sell their votes and no one's ever the wiser."

Jones, however, insists that the question is not one of cash-driven corruption but of the danger of airing unpopular political views.

"We've got no beef with political parties being controlled this way, but we think this law misses its target when it uses the phrase 'every person'", he said. "Krishna Bera is not a political party that needs to be watched; he's an individual who should be allowed to say what he believes."

For his part, Bera insists that the Vote Green site is not an advertisement and should therefore not be subject to disclosure laws.

"That's where you get into the issue of judging and labeling content", he said. "I say it's political speech; they say it's an ad. Who's going to decide?"


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