Defying Election Law  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   January/February 2001

Defying Election Law   

Canadian programmer posts vote tallies on the Web before polls close.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

Related reading:
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   » Palm Beach Follies
   » Stop the Madness
   » Raise Your Right Hand
   » Playing Favorites?


TODAY'S FREE SPEACH CRUSADERS are as likely to possess computer programming degrees as press credentials.
A prime case is Paul Bryan, a Canadian software developer who made a singular stand against his country's federal election law. After a month-long public prelude announcing his plans, Bryan posted immediate East Coast results for Canada's November 27 national election on his Web site beneath a banner declaring, "Welcome To The Information Age."
Bryan deliberately violated the Canada Elections Act, Section 329, which forbids the distribution of national election results to audiences in districts where voting is still in progress.
The ban was created to shield voters in the West from learning how an election was leaning in the East before they'd had a chance to vote. For years it has forced TV and radio networks to mind their mouths in each time zone, without deterring local stations from announcing immediate results in their own districts.
Extended to the Internet, however, the law prohibits all Web sites from publishing any results until every voting station in the country has closed.
Though Canada's staggered voting schedules mitigate the wait somewhat, East Coast Web sites still had to sit on their numbers until voting ended in the West two-and-a-half hours later. And sit they did, finally letting loose an avalanche of prepared numbers and stories at 10 p.m. EST.
Of course Bryan scooped them all, single-handedly entering numbers for the Eastern provinces as soon as they became available and continuing until the mainstream media took over. At that point the work became overwhelming, and he passed the torch to his "far more capable" counterparts.
The idea wasn't totally original; Bryan was the second Canadian to disobey the Elections Act last fall. In September, authorities confiscated the computer of retired math teacher Ivan Smith after he published election numbers while a vote was still in progress in British Columbia.
Although Bryan had received a threatening letter from authorities before the election and had his home searched afterward, he hadn't been charged with any crime at press time, and was still posting commentary and feedback at www.electionresultscanada.com.
Bryan, whose site solicited and published commentary from supporters and critics in the month before the election, said his chief prerogative was to challenge the government's suffocation of "freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication."
He pointed out that the election results ban couldn't possibly accomplish its purpose since any slightly ambitious person could discover how the East was voting via satellite TV, e-mail or a phone call. If the goal was to protect that information, he argued, all results could be withheld and released simultaneously.
"In the Information Age," Bryan wrote on his site, "the prohibition on the transmission of public, factual information can be compared to throwing a stone into a river--the water doesn't stop moving, it simply flows around the rock."
Though Bryan makes no claim to journalism, his crusade is relevant to the online press in Canada and the United States.
Bryan represents the data distributors who, in this blurry medium, often blend roles with the reporters whose job it is to lend context and clarity to the raw facts. These people often seem to have an affinity for the Internet that traditional news organizations lack, and a greater sense of outrage toward attempts to dampen the free flow of information online.
In one sense, his genre might be a competitive threat, scooping stories from the law-abiding sites that would rightly prefer to pursue the matter in court rather than get dragged through it.
On the other hand, it might be affirming to see mainstream media take a role in the effort to secure freedom and defeat senseless restrictions on the Internet. There will likely be a cluster of these dialogues in the near future, as the global community decides whether to recognize geographical boundaries in cyberspace.
In the same month, for example, a French judge ordered U.S.-based Internet portal Yahoo! to block French visitors from an online auction area that includes Nazi memorabilia. In that case, Yahoo! argued that the demand was technically unreasonable, and warned of the ominous implications of allowing one nation to impose its laws on a Web site in another.
These are fascinating times for anyone interested in journalism or Internet law. Whether amateur publishers like Bryan are heroes or spoilers, they are at least forcing the important issues that will shape the next era of Internet law and policy.

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