A warning for IT in electoral law changes

Any organisation that campaigns on anything in an election year will be affected

IT and website costs may be affected by the controversial Electoral Finance Bill, warns the Coalition for Open Government (COG).

It won’t just be the IT staffers of political parties who will be affected, but any organisation that campaigns on anything in an election year. Group or ‘commercial’ blogs may also have to be registered as a ‘third party’ under the proposed law.

The current law, written in 1993 but largely based on a 1956 Act, regulates “advertising”.

But, notes Graeme Edgeler, a Wellington lawyer and COG spokesman, the wording of the new bill covers “any form of words or graphics”.

Edgeler notes that if National hadn’t broadcast its taxathon advertisement and had just posted it on YouTube, with bloggers such as David Farrar linking to it, the ad would probably have been shown on the TV news and viewed by almost as many people as it would have on television. Yet this would not have counted towards the party’s spending limit.

Advertising bought on websites such as Trade Me is also included, but not the websites themselves.

Including such new campaign methods in costings, be it broadcast time or bandwith, “makes a lot of sense”, says Edgeler. But extending regulation of “advertising” to “any form of words or graphics” could have other effects.

For instance, the cost of websites would now be covered.

“That’s your IT guy,” he warns. While including staff costs — including writing and preparing graphics and speeches — might seem reasonable, “it shouldn’t be done surrepticiously, or as an unintended consequence of changing legislation”, he writes on the COG website.

Edgeler told Computerworld that including the cost of an IT department was “taking it to a slight extreme”, but that was the case based on the bill as written now.

Another significant impact is rules affecting “third parties”, making them register with the government if they spend more than $5,000 on their campaigns.

While media organisations such as Fairfax and APN are exempt from election regulations, they would have to check the credentials of registered third parties when they booked advertisements.

Blogs run by one person are also exempt, but possibly not those operated by a group of people, or those that are “commercial”, even to the extent of taking plug-in Google ads.

And, warns Edgeler, even non-commercial bloggers may have to file a statutory declaration if they post a video on their blog or on YouTube.

Blogger and technology commentator David Farrar confirms the bill will impact “quite hugely” on the use of technology in campaigns. He warns it could even cover the use of publicly accessible databases and text messaging.

Bank economists commenting on issues in their financial newsletters might have to register, he warns, and when organisations update their websites, further registration may also be necessary.

Farrar understands the need to regulate advertising, as that is “in your face”, but internet communication differs as it is “voluntary”, involving people freely seeking information.

Farrar expects to have to register his own Kiwiblog with government, as it costs more than $5,000 a year to run.

“I think it will be an unworkable regime. The law will have to change. If it doesn’t, thousands will be in breach of the Electoral Act,” Farrar warns.

Mark Burton, the minister in charge of the bill, did not return calls as Computerworld went to press, but Prime Minister Helen Clark acknowledges the bill casts its net too far and that revisions will be made at the Select Committee stage. Public Submissions close on September 7.

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Tags electionblogscampaignelectoral finance bill

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