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Leadership candidate rebuffs B.C. NDP request for social media passwords

British Colombia New Democratic Party(NDP) leadership candidate, Nicholas Simons, seen here during the NDP leadership debate in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, March 1, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's New Democrats are asking potential leadership candidates to hand over the keys to their online lives, apparently looking for any compromising photos or controversial postings that could come back to bite the party.

Political parties routinely subject candidates to extensive vetting, requiring them to disclose anything about their personal lives that could prove embarrassing during a campaign.

But the NDP has gone one step further, demanding candidates who want to be on the ballot for the April 17 vote provide the passwords to their social media profiles - a request leadership hopeful Nicholas Simons says goes too far.

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Mr. Simons, who has represented the party in the legislature since 2005, says he handed in his nomination package without giving the party access to poke around his Facebook account.

"Our civil liberties and privacy, they don't just go away overnight, they get eroded gradually," he said in an interview.

"At what point are they going to be satisfied that my character is such that I won't bring disrepute to the party? I've been an MLA for six years. I don't claim to be an angel by any means, but nor do I think what I do in private is really of relevance."

Mr. Simons said he understands the party's desire to properly vet candidates and he's open to finding a compromise, but he said he's concerned the request violates not only his privacy, but also the privacy of everyone in his Facebook network, including some of his constituents.

He noted anyone with his password could also view the personal information of all of his Facebook friends and read any private messages he's exchanged with them.

"Parties are all concerned about their candidates and how upstanding they are in the community, and they don't want something to kneecap them halfway through a campaign," he said.

"But be that as it may, there needs to be a discussion about this. I'm just hoping that they'll say, 'Let's do it another way."'

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One idea Mr. Simons suggested is having candidates and the party agree on an independent reviewer, who could look through online accounts and report back to the party if anything of concern turns up.

An NDP spokesperson was unavailable for comment.

The Liberal party, which just wrapped up a leadership race that selected Christy Clark as the province's next premier, didn't require candidates to submit the passwords for their online accounts.

Political parties are increasingly worried about what skeletons might be lurking in the online closets of their candidates, and a few have seen their political ambitions dashed after embarrassing photos or off-colour comments surfaced during campaigns.

One of Mr. Simons' rivals, pot activist Dana Larsen, was burned by social media during the 2008 federal election, when he was running for the NDP in the riding of West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast. Larsen was forced to step down because of online videos that appeared to show him using LSD and smoking marijuana.

The provincial New Democrats dropped Ray Lam as a candidate during the 2009 election, after racy photos from his private Facebook page became public.

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Online privacy expert Michael Geist said he's surprised a political party would make such an invasive request, and he understands the privacy concerns Simons is raising.

Mr. Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa, said if the NDP is concerned about potential embarrassments, it should instead focus on teaching potential candidates about appropriate online behaviour.

"I think all the political parties are paying more attention to social media, both for the benefit it brings as well as sometimes the risk, but the approach that's suggested that a candidate would have to hand over that information, I can understand how that would have a chilling effect on some would-be candidates," he said.

"The solution isn't to require someone to hand over all their password information. It's to educate them on what's appropriate social media activity for someone in the public eye."

Mr. Simons expects to know by Friday whether his nomination package will be accepted without the password information.

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