Most of Canada's top websites won't post federal election ads this year

Most of Canada's 20 most popular websites won't be accepting political ads or setting up ad registries during the upcoming election campaign, as provided for in changes to Canada's elections laws, CBC News has learned.

Many of the most popular sites decided it was too late to set up a registry

Kijiji promotes its auto sales service at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto on Thursday, February 14, 2019. The online classified ads site is one of many websites popular in Canada that won't be running political ads during the federal election campaign period. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Most of Canada's 20 most popular websites won't be accepting political ads or setting up the ad registries called for under new election rules adopted by Parliament.

A survey by CBC News reveals that many online operations have quietly decided that it would be too difficult to set up a registry in the two months remaining before the new rules go into effect, or to ensure that third party ads don't slip through their systems.

Tech giant Microsoft has decided to completely ban political advertising on its online platforms, including Bing and MSN, rather than adapt to new regulations being introduced around the world, including Canada's new rules.

Microsoft's decision to bar political advertising worldwide quietly started going into effect two weeks ago.

"We continue to see shifts in the regulatory environment for political advertising around the world, adding to the complexity to adhere with precision," wrote Microsoft vice-president Kya Sainsbury-Carter.

"For this reason, we have made the decision to disallow advertising for election related content, political parties, candidates and ballot measures globally."

According to Comscore results, MSN.com had 949 million views in Canada in January 2019, while MSN.ca saw 456 million. Bing.com was the seventh most popular site in Canada, with 532 million views in Canada.

Microsoft did allow political ads on its platforms during the 2015 federal election.

Microsoft Corp's Bing is no longer accepting political ads around the world. (Reuters)

The pre-writ period leading up to the October 21 election begins June 30; starting then, online platforms that accept political advertising in Canada will be required to show more transparency than they have in the past.

Under clauses inserted in the legislation by the Commons procedure and House affairs committee and adopted by Parliament, online platforms that accept political advertising by political parties, candidates or interest groups will have to set up special ad registries that include copies of the ads and the name of the person who authorized them.

According to Comscore measurements, there are 491 English websites that have enough Canadian traffic to be required to comply with the new provisions of the law if they run political ads during the pre-writ or election periods. An estimated 544 French-language websites meet the threshold for French websites.

Elections Canada issued guidance to online platforms last week to help them comply with the new rules. Many sites simply aren't going to accept political ads in Canada at all.

Google has two of the three highest-traffic websites in Canada: Google.com and Google.ca. It has announced already that its Google ads program won't accept political ads during the pre-writ and election period.

In Canada, Google.com got 9.5 billion views in January and Google.ca got 3.7 billion.

Reddit says forget it

Reddit — the 10th busiest site in Canada, with 452 million views — won't be accepting political ads in Canada, said spokesperson Allie Mack.

"Reddit does not accept political ads for elections, political issues or candidates outside the U.S., regardless of the timing. Further, all political ads are reviewed by a human to ensure that they comply with our policies."

The popular online classified advertising site Kijiji won't be running political ads either.

"We will not be accepting political advertising on our site for the upcoming Canadian Federal election," said the company.

Amazon.ca accepts third party advertising on its site but political ads violate its external ad policy, said spokesman Andrew Gouveia.

Some sites still thinking it over

Some of the top sites still have not decided what approach they'll take to Canada's new law governing online advertising during elections.

Twitter is being tight-lipped, both with the government and journalists.

"We have no comment at this time," said Michele Austin, head of government, public policy and philanthropy for Twitter in Canada.

Yahoo also is still evaluating what it will do, said Kira LeBlanc, senior manager of communications for Verizon.

"At this time we are assessing the compliance framework before implementing any changes."

The popular Roblox gaming site does not accept third party advertising in Canada. TD.com and RoyalBank.com don't accept third party advertising at all.

LinkedIn and the Weather Network did not respond to several queries by CBC.

Kevin Chan, head of public policy, Facebook Canada says Facebook debating not running political ads but decided to build an ad registry. (Facebook)

Of the top 20 most popular websites in Canada, CBC News found only three that have decided to accept political advertising and set up ad registries: Facebook, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) and CBC.ca.

Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Facebook Canada, said the company had "a serious discussion" internally about whether to simply ban political ads during the federal election, but in the end decided to set up a registry.

"While it is very difficult to do, it's worth doing because that is actually the promise of digital advertising," he said. "It is the ability to democratize marketing to allow basically any entity — not just the well-resourced ones — but any entity to run an ad if they so choose."

While the company is working on an ad registry that it says will exceed the requirements of the law, Chan said the company worries that "bad actors" will try to get around the law and run ads via Facebook without self-declaring as required under the law.

Kerry Kelly, spokeswoman for CBC, said the network has run political ads in past elections and will comply with the law's new requirements.

Sonia Carreno, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau Canada, says a number of websites are concerned that third party political ads will slip through the new election rules. (CBC)

Sonia Carreno, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada, said her members generally support transparency but have been given very little time to make the technical changes necessary to adapt to the law.

Some online sites — particularly those that have self-serve advertising systems — also are concerned about their ability to identify third party interest groups who want to advertise during the election, she said.

"The worry is that some of the publishers who are doing their due diligence and everything that they can to comply with the law are actually in a position where they don't have complete information about some of the players that are in the field," she said.

Others who normally would use automated advertising systems are looking at switching to manually operated systems, she added.

Carreno predicted that problems could arise during the election with third party advertisers — and said that's discouraging some large platforms from accepting political ads.

"We feel that there may be some misses where there's some undetected third parties. Some third parties that don't want to register but still want to get their message across the media platforms."

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said the law is intended to increase transparency and prevent the kind of election interference seen in the U.K.'s Brexit referendum — not to stop online political advertising.

Gould said even if a company says it won't accept political ads, it could still face problems if one runs on its site anyway.

"They're still liable if an ad surfaces on their platform."

NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who sits on the committee that studied the changes to the elections law, said it appears the government didn't do its homework before proposing the new rules governing online political ads.

"I don't think any Canadian is going to cry that there are fewer political ads on certain websites, but the point is that the rules that have been set by the government don't work and that's what matters."

With popular platforms not accepting political ads, attempts to influence voters will be harder to monitor, said Cullen.

"In a sense it will drive it underground ... they'll find other ways to get the same thing done."

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

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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.