Bloggers flout law

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Janice Neil

Janice NeilA handful of bloggers and Twittering fingers couldn’t break their habit on election night, in the face of a law that essentially prohibits publication of polls results on the internet before 10 pm ET.

While the mainstream media said they did their best to obey the Elections Canada gag law that prevents broadcasting or publishing online results to regions before the polls have closed there, citizen bloggers couldn’t resist reporting on the earliest ballot counts from the east.

The Supreme Court of Canada upheld Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act last year, that imposes a blackout to try to prevent the posted results in the eastern time zones from influencing voters in the West.

The earliest postings I found purportedly came from bloggers overseas. The first, from a Canadian living in the UK, called “The Surley Beaver”, announced at 8 pm ET, when the polls closed, that he would be “getting results from the east emailed to him and posting live.” Within 28 minutes, a B.C. man who said he’s living and working in Hawaii, posted on canspice.org an hour-and-a-half before the media blackout would be lifted. Brad Cavanagh reported “CBC is reporting that the Conservatives have lost their three seats in Newfoundland-Labrador. Peter MacKay has won Central Nova, beating Green Party leader Elizabeth May.”

Within minutes, results popped up on another site, A Newfoundland Observer, a two-year-old current events blog by Charles Cheeseman, in St. John’s.  In between posting election results and comments from readers, the self-described  “Newfoundland Observer” said in an email that he didn’t plan on posting live results at all.  But once the polls closed, in Newfoundland, he noticed people searching Google for results and ending up on his site. One reader in Ontario asked him for results, so,  “as a favour, I responded by email and gave him an update from CBC or CTV. I did this 3 or 4 times,” he said, then took it public, to his blog. “It was a rare opportunity to provide information for a brief time using a technology I did not grow up with - very interesting.”

Cheeseman dismissed concerns about the gag law (with fines up to $25,000), seeking comfort in the number of bloggers. “I am not coaxing people to see my information. In fact, my intended audience could only have been fellow Newfoundlanders or Labradorians, but outsiders saw it,” he explained.  (A B.C. software developer, Paul Bryan, was fined $1,000 for posting results before the polls closed, in the 2000 election.)

There was perhaps more reluctance to post on the instant and public message site, Twitter, as only a couple of regular contributors posted almost-cryptic messages on polls results. One contributor even issued a warning about the law. At 9:12 pm ET, 48 minutes before the blackout would be lifted, a poster identified as “saleemkhan” said  “Those prosecuted for violating Election Act s.329 for transmitting results before polls close may care www.rurl.org/12pj”, a link to the pertinent section for the Elections Canada Act.

That didn’t deter one Twitter-hungry poster, identified by newslab.ca as The Globe and Mail’s technology journalist, Matthew Ingram, who posted the daring: “I'm going to violate Canada's election law and let you know that early results show the "keep everything the same" party winning.”

The community of the daring also included a well-established environmental website based in the U.S., website treehugger.com. At least 30-minutes before the blackout was lifted, it plunged in, “We are live-blogging the election results as they roll across the country…Results from Quebec and Ontario beginning to dribble in. Time for a shot of Newfie Screech.”

And it seems many Canadians are not content to be informed about the poll results as if the internet had never been invented. One reader, identified as “SwimmingOil”, appreciatively told Newfoundland’s Cheeseman, “Thanks for this from all us political junkies out west here.”

The belief –upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada – that knowing how some Canadians voted before you went to the polls, offended some people leaving comments at the cbc.ca site today. Brad Reddekopp wrote: ”The law is simply obsolete. To try to enforce it on the Internet is stupid at best and excessively repressive (i.e. evil) at worst. It's gone so let it go.” Another, Jed400ex wrote: “I doubt that the number of people that would actually watch their TV set and change their vote based on results in the East is a small number and is not worth having a blackout. Social networking sites have made the blackout obsolete... so either turn all polls in at the same time or just cancel this blackout... it's dumb.”

Janice Neil is Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism at Ryerson University and Ideas editor of J-Source.

Comments

Just wanted to point out that my Twitter message was meant as a joke -- none of the polls had even closed when I posted it. It was meant to indicate my frustration with what I expected would be the result of the election, which I'm pretty sure isn't a crime (at least not yet). That said, however, I personally think the election gag law is dumb.
How many of the people, particularly on Twitter, were flouting the law and how many were merely having a conversation with their circle of online friends that just happened to be in a public space? How can a government legitimately shut down conversation? The blackout law is, I read somewhere, from 1934, and clearly passed its best-by date.
The law is, indeed, an ass because it doesn't acknowledge a changing world. During an election campaign, ever-more-sophisticated polls tell us how people in different parts of the country will be voting. Is this really substantially different from knowing the voting results in the East before we vote in the West on voting day? Does anyone seriously believe that we only vote, because we think our individual ballot will make a significant difference one way or another? Or do we vote because we want to tell the candidates (or the party leaders) something? Prohibiting the publication of voting results is paternalistic, wrong-headed, and only plays into the hands of those who would cast an election as a horse-race. It's not, it's a democratic conversation. The sooner we (and the media, and the courts) acknowledge this, the better.

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