Law fails to keep early election results off the Web . . . and TV

Michael Bolen
Canada Politics

Threats of $25,000 fines didn't keep people from leaking elections results online tonight.

Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act states results from an electoral district where polls have closed are not to be transmitted in an electoral district where polls haven't closed.

In practice, this means news organizations are prohibited from publishing content on results before polls close in B.C. at 10 p.m. ET.

Twitter and other social media services have made enforcing the results ban much more difficult.

Nevertheless, Elections Canada stated results posted on Twitter or on a Facebook wall would be construed as violating the Act and trigger a fine of up to $25,000. Emailing, phoning or even Facebook messaging remains legal.

During the 2000 election, a man who was posting early results was fined after his home was raided and his computer seized. So, while the law may be difficult to enforce, Elections Canada clearly has a history of trying.

Did the threat of steep fines keep early results off the Web?

In a word, no.

As soon as polls closed in Atlantic Canada, results began appearing via several popular Twitter hashtags. As of 9 p.m. EST, #tweettheresults was the top trending topic in Canada and the third most popular worldwide.

While the topic seemed to be devoted more to discussing the results ban than actually breaking it, there were large numbers of tweets displaying results. The hashtags #elxnGue #elxnWR also displayed early results.

The website, set up by B.C. social media impresarios Alexandra Samuel and Darren Barefoot, went offline at approximately 7 p.m. EST.

"Rather than face a potential fine or protracted legal battle, we have taken this site offline for 3 hours," said a note appearing on the site. "When free speech returns to Canada at 10 p.m. EST, the site will be back online"

While some Twitter users were risking punishment online, it was Canada's national broadcaster, the CBC that seemed to have breached section 329 publicly.

At 9 p.m. EST, CBC Newsworld began airing results from Atlantic Canada in Ontario 30 minutes before polls closed there. Residents in the Prairies also reported seeing CBC results early on Twitter.

CBC quickly moved to a "technical difficulties" screen only to return to the air just before a clip of Jack Layton's famous "hashtag fail" statement from the debate. Priceless.

Even though Elections Canada has a history of enforcing Section 329, it has stated it has no plans to actively monitor social media for violations. Instead, it plans to rely on the honour system and investigate any complaints.

(Photo credit: Alexei Oreskovic/Reuters)