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Elections law violated on Twitter, but prosecutions in doubt

Screen grab from Twitter of one of the most retweeted posts found under the #tweettheresults hashtag.


Turns out Elections Canada needn't have worried so much about the threat posed by twittering politics nerds to a 73-year-old ban on publishing early election results.

It was old-school mainstream media whose prematurely released reports were most publicized and visible Monday night, when Canada's public broadcaster mistakenly went live with election results in time zones that were still voting.

Shortly after 9 p.m. ET, CBC News Network began broadcasting initial results from Atlantic Canada - a full half-hour before polls had closed in Quebec and Ontario. The coverage was pulled after about four minutes, replaced with a note apologizing for "technical difficulties."

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The mix-up was inadvertent, said CBC spokesman Jeff Keay, and due to a "switching error."

"The error was resolved within several minutes and normally scheduled programming resumed," he said. "As soon as we could get the error fixed, we fixed it."

For those few minutes, however, the network appeared technically in violation of a section of the Elections Act prohibiting "premature transmission" of results to a province where voting is still ongoing.

The law sparked consternation among Canada's plugged-in politics junkies, who argued it's outdated in an age where millions of Canadians have grown accustomed to using Facebook and Twitter to broadcast their musings, meals and political idiosyncrasies to the world.

Vancouver-based social media consultants Alexandra Samuel and Darren Barefoot started a website aggregating tweets that published results early - but they pulled back at the last minute on Monday, fearing the publicity the site had garnered could land them in court.

"It was a really difficult decision … In a way, we were victims of our own success," Ms. Samuel said at the time. "As the past week wore on and we got a lot of coverage, we just got more worried that there were enough people sniping about the site we thought, 'What are the odds one person would file a complaint about us, specifically?' "

But that didn't stop thousands of people from tweeting about it: The hashtag #tweettheresults was one of the top trending topics on Twitter worldwide, with users sharing spoilers both electoral and otherwise.

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Elections Canada spokesman John Enright couldn't say on Monday night whether there had been any complaints about breaches of the results blackout. But he emphasized the elections commissioner "is not monitoring the Internet" and will only investigate complaints he deems in the public interest.

Mark Freiman, the lawyer representing CBC and CTV in their Ontario Superior Court challenge of the election-results blackout, couldn't comment on Monday's broadcast but said in an interview Sunday it's becoming increasingly complex and onerous for large media organizations to comply with the law, which dates to 1938.

Bernard Keane, a political correspondent for in Canberra, Australia, is familiar with that kind of legislation: He compares Canada's "premature transmissions" law to a rule prohibiting electronic media such as radio and TV broadcasters from publishing anything election-related in the final days before a vote.

"This was so ridiculous. And journalists resisted by reading out the newspapers on radio, which was sort of an automatic breach of the law," he said. "It became so ridiculous, politicians eventually removed it."

Mr. Keane saw echoes of that law in Canada's Elections Act legislation. So he put out a call on Monday to tweet any results people e-mailed to him hoping to avoid the threat of prosecution.

"I'm of the view that people who are able to should stand up for free speech," he said. "It's obviously not much of an effort to tweet the results of an election if you can get your hands on them."

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More than a dozen people e-mailed him results, he said, and he posted them to his Twitter feed - noting that he wasn't in a position to check their veracity.

It's not clear whether violations of the results blackout - inadvertent or purposeful - will result in prosecutions; Mr. Enright noted that while there have been 600 complaints per election for the past two elections, there have been no charges under this section of the Elections Act.

But some of the law's opponents hope publicity from this election will spark a legislative change - either to make all results public, to any time zone, or to keep ballot boxes closed until polling has ended in all provinces.

"What I was happiest about was the conversation that people had about the law itself," Ms. Samuel said afterwards. "A lot of people continued to use the #tweettheresults hashtag to weigh on the limits that the Elections Act poses to people who want to talk about the election online. And the rate of tweets - enough to make #tweettheresults trend on Twitter worldwide - was a real indicator of the breadth of Canadians' impatience with the law as it now stands."

Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University's Arthur L Carter Journalism Institute, said he finds the law "absurd."

"This is a case where technology has moved on and political institutions have to adjust ... it is kind of comical, in a way," he said. In the U.S., he said, networks usually voluntarily hold off from calling an election until after the West Coast has voted, but they don't wait for Hawaii and they start broadcasting East Coast results as soon as they're available.

To outside observers, he said, Canada's "premature transmission" rule seems an outdated anomaly in the 21st century.

"In many ways, the Canadian election system is better than the American system," he said. "But this particular regulation just strikes me as a political institution that isn't keeping up with the times."

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