- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 3, 2011

OTTAWA (AP) - Canadian Twitter users defied an official ban on posting federal election results before all the polls closed, running the risk of a hefty fine if the government enforces the law.

The 73-year-old Elections Act bans reporting early results in order to prevent voters in the East from influencing choices in the West. Polls close in Newfoundland two-and-a-half hours ahead of central Canada and much of the West, and three hours ahead of British Columbia.

But even before polling stations closed in western Canada, results from eastern provinces were leaking out on Twitter.

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

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

But that group backed down and took down their website, tweettheresults.ca, promptly at 7 p.m. EST (2300 GMT), 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 would be reluctant to enforce the election law, which would force them to issue fines up to $C25,000 fines to numerous Canadians.

It remains to be seen if the government will try to enforce 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.”

It’s hard to say how many Canadian Twitter users intentionally sought to defy the law.

But for all the Twitter talk, it was a major media outlet, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News Network that ended up mistakenly broadcasting some early results before the final polls closed out west.

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 programing soon followed.

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

The 1938 elections law has been challenged legally before but was upheld. But it has not seen a test like the one it faced Monday night.

The last time Elections Canada pursued a violator was in 2000, when it charged a Vancouver blogger with publishing results from Atlantic Canada. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and the blogger was fined C$1,000.

Enright said it is up to Parliament to determine whether the law has 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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