Tweeps jump the gun on results, risk fines

The Twitterverse played a game of 140-character chicken with Elections Canada on Monday by posting results from the federal election well before all polls were closed. Now it remains to be seen if any “tweeps” find themselves in a head-on collision with the full force of the law.

OTTAWA — The Twitterverse played a game of 140-character chicken with Elections Canada on Monday by posting results from the federal election well before all polls were closed.

Now it remains to be seen if any “tweeps” find themselves in a head-on collision with the full force of the law.

Elections Canada spokesman John Enright wouldn’t say if anyone had complained about the too-soon tweets.

“We won’t confirm or deny any complaints received,” he said. “That’s standard policy for the commissioner.”

Even before polling stations closed in western Canada, results from the East were leaking on to Twitter.

The tweets — many of which carried the hashtag “tweettheresults” — were visible to everyone, regardless of whether or not they’re on Twitter themselves.

The hashtag was a reference to a website of the same name, run by a band of online vigilantes who planned to gather tweets from Twitter users and share election results before all polls closed.

But the group turned out to be all talk and no tweet.

Their website, tweettheresults.ca, was promptly taken down at 7 p.m. EST, the start of the blackout period.

“Rather than face a potential fine or protracted legal battle, we have taken this site offline for 3 hours,” said a message on the site.

“When free speech returns to Canada at 10 P.M. EST, the site will be back online and you will be able to read all the tweets that have accumulated in the interim.”

The group had hoped for safety in numbers — namely, that Elections Canada will be reluctant to enforce the Elections Act, which would force them to issue $25,000 fines to countless Canadian citizens.

The 73-year-old election law, which is meant to prevent voters in the East from influencing choices in the West, prohibits the transmission of election results until all the polls have closed.

Polls closed in Newfoundland two-and-a-half hours ahead of central Canada and much of the West, and three hours ahead of British Columbia.

Without the restrictions, many Canadian voters might have been unduly influenced by the results in Atlantic Canada before marking their own ballots.

But for all the Twitter talk, it was a traditional media outlet that got most of the attention for jumping the gun.

An apparent glitch had CBC News Network broadcasting early results well before all the polls closed in contravention of Canada’s Elections Act.

The network quickly cut away to an error message.

“Sorry, we’re experiencing technical difficulties,” read a message on the screen. “Please stay tuned.”

But when CBC came back on the air, the results were still there. The broadcaster cut away a second time. Regular programming soon followed.

CBC spokesman Jeff Keay blamed the mix-up on a “a garden-variety technical glitch.”

The irony of a traditional media outlet jumping the gun was not lost on the Twitterverse, which many assumed — correctly, as it turns out — would flout the law by posting early results.

“Oh, man, (at)petermansbridge is GOING TO JAIL,” tweeted former Liberal party speechwriter Scott Feschuk.

Late Monday, the election was one of the biggest trending topics worldwide on Twitter.

It’s hard to say how many intentionally sought to frustrate the intention of the law.

Twitter users who were planning to send results suggested they would try to change the location setting in their Twitter accounts in the hopes of remaining geographically anonymous.

People in other countries also volunteered to tweet election results during the blackout period.

Nav Singh Dhanda, a Canadian student in Michigan, said about a dozen people asked him to tweet results.

“I’m not too worried about it,” he said in an email.

“To me, there’s as much as harm in this as there is going 105 or 110 (kilometres an hour) on (Highway) 401.”

The law has been challenged legally before and been upheld, but has not seen a test like the one it faced Monday night.

Elections Canada said they would wait to see what actually happened before deciding what to do.

The advent of technology has created circumstances that were never envisioned in 1938, when the law was passed, Enright said.

Still, Elections Canada wasn’t trolling the Internet looking for violators.

The last time Elections Canada pursued a violator was in 2000, when it charged Paul Bryan with publishing results from Atlantic Canada on his Vancouver blog.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and Bryan was fined $1,000.

The commissioner would only charge someone with violating the section “if it’s in the public interest,” although he gave no clear definition of what that constitutes.

Canadian television networks have agreed to respect the law, even though they have fought it, unsuccessfully, in the courts before.

Facebook, the Internet’s other social-networking juggernaut, sent out a message to its clients reminding them of the provisions of Section 329.

Enright said it is up to Parliament to make the judgment if the law had outlived its usefulness in an age of modern communication. The United States faces the same time-zone challenges, yet makes no attempt to prevent California voters from learning results from the east coast before they go to the polls.

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