04/24/2019 20:47 EDT | Updated 04/24/2019 20:55 EDT

Elections Canada Law Doesn't Cover Organic Social Media, User-Generated Content

The guidelines will do little to regulate third parties like Ontario Proud.

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OTTAWA — A new law requiring online platforms to publish a digital registry of all political ads posted during the coming federal election campaign will apply only to paid advertisements.

And that leaves lots of room for parties and advocacy groups to find other innovative ways to get their messages out to voters, without regulation.

As guidelines issued by Elections Canada on Wednesday point out, the law does not apply to texts, emails or other private messages.

Nor does it apply to user-generated content posted for free on social media or content published on a group's own website, including videos posted on those websites or free websites like YouTube.

'We don't need to do paid advertising'

Had those rules applied during last year's Ontario election, they would have done little to hinder third parties like Ontario Proud, a conservative advocacy group that boasts it had "immense influence" in electing Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives.

The group — which has started a spin-off Canada Proud organization in hopes of taking down Justin Trudeau's Liberals in the coming federal campaign — says its Facebook page was more popular than any provincial political party or major media outlet, reaching 4 to 15 million users each week during the Ontario campaign.

It also boasts that it sent out more than a million text messages and made 2.5 million phone calls to identify and motivate conservative voters.

"We reach millions of people organically every week," says Jeff Ballingall, founder of Ontario Proud and its federal offshoot. "We don't need to do paid advertising."

We reach millions of people organically every week. We don't need to do paid advertising.Jeff Ballingall, Ontario Proud

That said, Canada Proud does intend to pay for some ads, as Ontario Proud did during the provincial campaign, to put its message "on steroids," as Ballingall puts it. Such paid online ads will have to be included in public registries kept by platforms such as Facebook, with tags identifying who sponsored them — a requirement intended to make political advertising more transparent and to help prevent foreign interference and the spread of disinformation during a campaign.

Starting June 30, the registry requirement will apply to explicitly partisan ads. In early September, once the campaign for the Oct. 21 election officially begins, it will also apply to ads about issues that are associated with one or more political parties. The registries must be available publicly for two years.

Google Canada has opted not to sell any space for political ads in the coming federal campaign rather than comply with the registry law. But in the guidelines issued Wednesday, Elections Canada warns that platforms that do that must take active steps to ensure they don't display any paid political advertising.

"If regulated ads appear without being included in a registry, an investigation and even prosecution could take place, depending on the circumstances," the guidelines warn.

If regulated ads appear without being included in a registry, an investigation and even prosecution could take place, depending on the circumstances.Elections Canada

Ballingall argues that it's a good thing that the government is not trying to shut down or regulate the dissemination of political messages other than paid advertising.

"We want more voices talking and we want the ability for citizens to organize and have an influence on the political process. I think it's worse and I think it's more dangerous if we only let a few select people have control over political communication and political discussion," he says.

He speculated, however, that it was self-interest that motivated the Trudeau government to leave non-paid messaging unregulated. As much as it might have wanted to shut down Canada Proud, Ballingall says the government didn't want to handicap left-wing groups that have helped rally support for the Liberals in the past.

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Under other reforms to election laws, any third-party group that spends more than $500 on partisan activities, including ads, in the leadup to the election must register with Elections Canada. They will be limited to spending $1 million in the two to three months leading up to the official campaign (the "pre-writ period," it's called, before the election is actually called) and $500,000 during the campaign. They are banned altogether from using foreign money to fund their political activities.

Political parties will be limited to spending $2 million each during the pre-writ period, the first time they'll face such restrictions.

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