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Politics Elections Canada puts Facebook, Google, other tech giants on notice over political ads

Elections Canada is putting Facebook, Google and other web giants on notice that they still have to comply with new federal election laws even if they don’t allow political ads on their own platforms.

The independent agency will release a new guidance document on Wednesday with detailed explanations about how new election laws will be enforced leading up to the scheduled October federal election.

A copy of the document obtained by The Globe and Mail says platforms that sell space for political ads on other websites will still have to comply with the law’s new requirement that the ad includes a visible link to a public registry that states who paid for them.

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It also states that platforms that decide not to sell space for any election ads (referred to in the legislation as regulated advertising) – as Google Canada recently announced – will still have legal obligations, including monitoring their websites for potential violations.

“Elections Canada notes that some platforms may decide not to sell regulated advertising rather than create a registry,” Elections Canada states in the document. “Any platform that adopts this approach must still take steps to ensure that no regulated advertising appears on the platform. If regulated ads are displayed on a platform without being included in a registry, the platform could be investigated and even prosecuted, depending on the circumstances.”

The fall election campaign will be the first test of the new political advertising rules in the Liberal government’s Bill C-76, which passed in December. The requirements apply to clearly political ads that support or criticize a party or politician, as well as “issue” ads that take positions on topics that could be discussed during the campaign.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said at a Group of Seven ministers’ meeting in France this month that efforts have probably been made already “by malign foreign actors to disrupt our democracy.”

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has said governments worldwide will impose more restrictive laws and regulations on social-media companies unless they do more to limit the spread of violent and hateful content.

Colin McKay, Google Canada’s head of public policy and government relations, told The Globe last month the company will not accept political ads during this year’s campaign. Google owns YouTube, the popular video-sharing website.

Describing it as a “painful” decision, Mr. McKay said Google Canada reached the conclusion that not accepting election ads would be the best way to comply with the new provisions of the Elections Act.

The updated provisions are aimed at preventing anonymous individuals – including foreign actors – from influencing the Canadian election by paying to run ads via Google or on social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook Canada announced in March that it will accept election ads and will comply with the new law via a registry it calls the “Ad Library.” The company says it will require advertisers to confirm their identities before they can put election-related ads on Facebook or Instagram.

Facebook Canada has also named a panel that includes individuals who have held senior positions with the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP to advise it on detecting Canada-specific issue ads.

A report released last week in the United States by special counsel Robert Mueller outlined in detail how forces aligned with the Russian government used social media to influence the 2016 presidential election in support of Donald Trump. The Russian practices included placing ads, creating false online personas that built up thousands of followers, and organizing political rallies. One of the rallies, in Pittsburgh on Oct. 2, 2016, called “Miners for Trump,” was promoted by the Trump campaign’s Facebook account.

The report also found that units of the Russian government hacked the campaign accounts of Mr. Trump’s main opponent, Hillary Clinton, and released stolen e-mails to the public through online personas to undermine her campaign.

In a report released this month, Canada’s cyber spy agency warned that federal elections here are not immune from foreign interference.

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“The assessment concludes that it is very likely that Canadian voters will encounter foreign cyber interference ahead of, and during, the 2019 general election,” warned the Communications Security Establishment, a signals intelligence agency that reports to the Defence Minister. “Political parties, candidates, and their staff continue to be attractive targets.”

The Elections Canada guidance document said political entities – such as parties or special-interest groups – that place ads online must provide all the information the platform needs to comply with the law’s registry provisions.

While the new law will come into effect on June 13, the specific requirements for digital ad registries do not apply until June 30.

The registration requirements apply to English-language online platforms with at least three million unique visitors a month from Canada, and French-language sites with at least one million monthly visitors. The rules also apply to platforms that are mainly available in a language other than English or French and that receive at least 100,000 unique Canadian visitors.

The provisions do not apply to private messages such as texts and e-mails. Videos posted on a party or interest group’s own website or YouTube page are also exempt.

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