Who authorized that election ad? Under new rules website owners must know before they display

Canadians are facing a bewildering patchwork of approaches to online election ads as websites across the country struggle to adapt to new federal elections rules that come into effect today.

Long list of websites won't be accepting political advertising as they struggle with new rules

New election rules regarding online political advertising come into effect today. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

Canadians are facing a bewildering patchwork of approaches to online election ads as websites across the country struggle to adapt to new federal elections rules that come into effect today.

Under the new rules, websites with a large numbers of visitors that want to accept ads for political parties or candidates in the pre-writ period or the election campaign period must also set up an ad registry that will be posted for anyone to see.

This public registry must have information like copies of each ad and who authorized it. When the campaign begins, the websites have to add issues advertisements, which are ads about issues such the environment or healthcare.

The pre-writ period runs from today until the Oct. 21 election is called.

No consistent approach to new rules

The new rules, contained in Bill C-76, are expected to apply to nearly 500 English-language websites in Canada while more than 500 meet the threshold for French-language sites.

However, different websites and social media companies have responded very differently to the new rules.

Facebook will accept ads and has developed an ad library. Twitter has banned political ads during the pre-writ period but will accept political and issues ads once the election campaign begins.

Sonia Carreno, president of the Internet Advertising Bureau of Canada (IAB), says sites like Google, LinkedIn, Spotify and Pinterest have decided not to accept any political advertising during either the pre-writ and campaign period.

"There's a very long list of platforms that will not be accepting issue advertising or political advertising at all."

Sonia Carreno, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau Canada says website owners have been struggling to come up with ways to comply with the new rules. (CBC)

Carreno said a key problem for website publishers in complying with the changes to the elections law is that a lot of online advertising is placed programmatically, which means it is distributed on websites automatically without any humans being involved.

A publisher may not even know exactly which ads have been placed on their site. That makes it hard to comply with a law that requires websites to report on political ads.

I think a little bit of friction in this space is not a bad thing at all.- Karina Gould, Minister of Democratic Institutions

"When it's an automatic process, it's impossible for the publisher to get an original piece [or copy] of the advertisement, which is required by law, by C-76 now," Carreno explained.

Carreno says some websites will accept political ads but they'll be having staff place each ad individually.  Advertisers will have to contact them directly if they want to run an ad.

"So that means that if you are part of a political party or you are a third party, then what happens is that you need to contact the publisher directly, or the agency needs to contact the publisher directly and then provide all of the registration information that's required to comply with C-76."

Among the website owners that will be requiring political advertisers to contact them to run ads are the CBC/Radio Canada, Bell Media, Corus, Glacier Media, the Globe and Mail, Postmedia, Rogers, Telequebec TV, the Toronto Star and Pelmorex, which runs the Weather Network, according to a list compiled by the IAB.

Many websites will miss out on ad bonanza

Many websites will also be affected by Google's decision not to accept political and issues advertising during the pre-writ and campaign period, she said.

"A lot of the publishers rely on Google quite heavily for programmatic ad serving. Because of the fact that they will be shutting that portion down during the elections, it actually impacts a lot of the publishers even without their direct influence or their direct decision."

Carreno said election campaigns are often windfalls for publishers, with political parties, candidates and interest groups advertising to voters. However, she said the new rules will affect that.

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould raises questions about programmatic ads that are automatically inserted onto websites. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"We're talking about big budgets for these political advertisers and the fact that the Canadian publishers are unable to compete from a programmatic standpoint for those dollars, is a bit of a shame for the industry that normally would have had a very marked increase in revenue this year as a result of an election period."

However, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould defends the new rules.

Lessons from the U.S. election

"We saw what happened in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 where social media played a big role with regards to foreign interference in that election. Particularly, we saw how paid content online was being manipulated to make it appear that it was coming from legitimate domestic sources when in fact it was coming from either state-sponsored activities coming out of the IRA in St. Petersburg or from kids in Macedonia who were looking to make money."

"We put this registry in place to [create] some of that transparency."

Gould said website owners are entitled to their concerns but she has serious questions about ads placed by computer programs.

"I think a little bit of friction in this space is not a bad thing at all. Actually with something as crucial as our election, this is something that we should be talking about and we should be asking ourselves the question — whether that automated ability to just put up an ad without any accountability, without any requirement to ensure the authenticity of who's doing it, needs to be questioned."

"So I think this is a really good thing and I hope it sparks a broader conversation about advertising in the online world and what we expect as a society."

Gould says Canada should consider regulating social media sites. "I think following the election whoever forms government... will have to seriously look at this and figure out how the online world fits into the norms and regulations that we have developed — for a very good reason — in the offline world to ensure that we are upholding the rights and the freedoms and the protections that people have."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.