The biggest social media companies in Canada are split on a proposed law that would force online content platforms to create a registry of domestic and foreign political advertisers during federal elections.
At a meeting Thursday of the Senate legal affairs committee considering Bill C-76, which would update the Elections Act, Facebook sent in a letter that it supports the proposed legislation.
However, officials from Google Canada and Twitter Canada told the committee their organizations have serious reservations.
Michele Austin, Twitter Canada’s head of government public policy, said her company has a pilot political ad registration system for the U.S., that would be used in other countries. But, she added, it would require major re-tooling to comply with the proposed Canadian law by next June, when Ottawa wants the changes to come into effect in time for the expected October election.
She also said Twitter’s voluntary registry is “a step up” from what Ottawa wants.
Google, which already requires verification of political advertisers’ identities, said the bill doesn’t relate how online advertising works.
“The entire infrastructure underlying online advertising would need to be changed,” said Jason Kee, Google Canada’s public policy and government relations Counsel. “This is simply not achievable” in time for the next election.
Among the goals of C-76 is to make public who is behind political advertising to eliminate the possibility of a foreign country trying to use the Internet to compromise an election. (Click here to see more details of the bill)
The U.S. Justice Department alleges Russia set up phony social media accounts as part of a broad attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. federal election.
Twitter’s Austin said her company has a pilot ad registration and transparency program in the U.S. it wants to roll out to different countries. But, she added, “requests by individual governments to re-engineer the existing ads transparency structure for different markets may prove extremely difficult. Twitter has to weight the time, effort and costs and of individual requests against changing our existing transparency centre model to deliver better, not just different outcomes to users.”
C-76 would require content platforms and websites to track advertisers in a different way than the Twitter registry, particularly adding different titles to the roles of advertisers or political party personnel. That would add “layers of cost and complexity” if Twitter had to re-code its registry to fit the Canadian law, she said. Nor, she added, would it do what Twitter’s open registry does, which tells people who actually paid for political ads.
She also complained that C-76 essentially forces platforms to verify the identity of those whose names are on the political ad register. By comparison, those on Twitter’s pilot registry often have an identification number issued by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) to political participants, including candidates and political action committees. That number, Austin said, independently verifies identity.
This provides “an additional level of certainty to users that a political advertiser is who they say they are,” she said, as well as context about the advertiser. The result is improved integrity of the registry information. And citizens can track political advertisers by their ID numbers across multiple platforms.
“This bill [C-76] asks Twitter, as well as our peer platforms, to assume the risk of verifying identity,” Austin said. “This amount of risk makes us uncomfortable. We are not entirely convinced that organizations who advertise during an election will do so honestly and fairly, simply because a government asks them to.”
She urged Elections Canada to follow the FEC and issue participant identification numbers.
Twitter didn’t have a chance to raise the issue earlier this year when the bill was before the House of Commons because the registry was a late addition and came after witnesses were allowed to testify.
The bill has since been passed by the House and is now being considered by the Senate. The Senate could make changes and punt the legislation back to the House. Depending on the amendments the government could accept them. However, the chief electoral officer told the Senate committee Wednesday it will be tight to prepare to meet the bill as it is for the June deadline.
Austin found at least one supporter in Senator Linda Frum, who said it would be a “no-brainer” to have Elections Canada issue identification numbers to political advertisers as the FEC does.
In his testimony Kee said for the recent U.S. mid-term elections Google enhanced its political advertising verification requirements to include in-ad disclosures of who paid for political ads, as part of a transparency library on advertising. Similar ad transparency tools will be ready for the 2019 European Union parliamentary elections, he said.
C-76 requires any website or platform (like Google or Twitter) to maintain its own political ad registry with a list of advertisers. But, Lee said, few sites know who buys ads. Most web pages have ads automatically inserted from a bidding system. Sites may know an ad is political, but not who bought it.
“We recommend a co-operative approach whereby platforms co-ordinate on a registry,” perhaps based on political ad registries that sites already have, he said.
One of Google’s big problems is the penalties – including jail – for sites that fail to keep an accurate registry. It doesn’t take into account advertisers who aren’t honest. C-76 should also only criminalize publishers who knowingly don’t comply with the law, Kee said.