Elections Canada has instructed an Ottawa man that he must alter or remove his world-wide-web page, entitled "Vote Green!". Failure to comply could result in a $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail. With more than 25 "mirror sites" popping up all around the world, it's clear this is an issue that isn't going away. Electronic Frontier Canada, the nation's leading organization devoted to preserving Charter rights in cyberspace, plans to fight this censorship in court.
Krishna Bera didn't want to be a criminal -- he just wanted to express his opinion during the federal election campaign. His mistake? He chose to express his opinion anonymously. Now he's been threatened with fines or imprisonment by Elections Canada.
Bera, a 33-year-old Ottawa computer consultant and environmentalist, composed a world-wide-web page entitled "Vote Green!", and published it through his local service provider ( http://www.achilles.net/~kebera/anon/vote-green.html ). The page is a calm and inoffensive statement in favour of the Green Party, and contains a link to the official Green Party page ( http://www.green.ca ). But Bera chose not to identify who wrote or sponsored the page in question. According to government bureaucrats, this is a serious offence.
On May 9, Bera received a stern letter from Raymond Landry, Commissioner of Canada Elections, warning him that "sponsors of political advertising must indicate on their internet advertisements the name of the group or individual who is authorizing the advertisement." According to sections 259.2 and 267 of the Canada Elections Act, Bera can be fined up to $1,000 or jailed for up to 1 year, just because of his anonymous web page.
"This is censorship, pure and simple," says David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada (EFC), a non-profit organization devoted to the preservation of civil liberties in electronic media. "The right to speak anonymously is a fundamental one. Anonymity plays an important role for many Canadians: Alcoholics Anonymous, rape crisis centers, suicide prevention hotlines, anonymous tips to police through Crime-Stoppers, or whistle-blowers that alert the public to government corruption.
EFC's Vice-President, Jeffrey Shallit, agrees. "The law is clearly contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The right to anonymous political speech is essential in a free society. Without it, how can powerful governments be challenged by citizens afraid of reprisals?" He pointed to Thomas Paine's Common Sense as an example of an important political document originally published anonymously.
Jones adds, "Canadians already have the right to communicate anonymously via public payphones and the post office. Canada Post doesn't demand that letters contain return addresses. There's no valid rationale for prohibiting anonymous political web pages."
Bera, lacking his own resources to fight Elections Canada's censorship, reluctantly removed his page after receiving Landry's letter. But in a surprising development, Bera's page has now been "mirrored" on more than 25 different computers in six different countries -- including several in Canada -- and the number is increasing daily.
The first to mirror Bera's page was Jim Carroll, co-author of the Canadian Internet Handbook. He explains his rationale as follows: "My books about the Internet have sold some 300,000 copies in Canada, and I appear frequently in the national media. I try to help Canadians understand all kinds of developments on the Internet. It is only natural that I would jump at the opportunity to help Canadians understand what is happening in terms of efforts to stifle the expression of political opinion online, by making available to them this so-called illegal web page."
"I don't think my mirror of the `Vote Green!' web page is illegal", says Carroll. "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 bureacrat to be an advertisement and therefore illegal. The Internet is many different things to many different people. What might be considered an advertisement by one, might be a form of political commentary or journalism by another."
Lawyers working with Electronic Frontier Canada are preparing to challenge section 259.2(1) of the Canada Elections Act in court. "Other sections of the Act have already been struck down by the Alberta Court of Appeal," says EFC's Jeffrey Shallit. "We are confident that any reasonable judge will find that banning anonymous political speech by private citizens is unjustified and violates the Charter."
Meanwhile, Bera's own web page has been replaced with one that reads "CENSORED". But more than 25 mirror sites around the world explain why: "Elections Canada is attempting to squelch ... freedom online, and is thereby attacking the democracy it is supposed to be supporting."
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