A small change in a parliamentary committee’s official demand for corporate messages held by Facebook parent Meta hasn’t altered the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s complaint that the order is a threat to privacy.
“I suppose you could say it’s cold comfort that committee members decided to uphold individual citizens’ right to expect a certain degree of privacy in their lives,” Matthew Holmes, the Chamber’s senior vice-president of policy and government relations, said in an interview Tuesday. “But as far as organizations such as ours, as well as non-profits, labour unions and private enterprises, we feel that this move by the committee sets a precedent where private sector communications could be compelled to be disclosed by members of Parliament.”
He was referring to a decision Monday by the House of Commons Heritage Committee asking for communications between Meta and third parties on the topic of Canadian government regulations. The committee agreed to a Liberal motion that Meta wouldn’t have to produce external emails and texts with individuals regarding their thoughts on government regulations. However, Meta will have to give the committee copies of messages it had with organizations, including associations, companies, and non-profits, on that topic.
That’s a change from the original motion proposed last week by Liberal Chris Bittle, parliamentary secretary to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez. It would have demanded all internal and external communications about government regulations that both Google and Meta had between anyone regarding government regulations as the committee examines what the two companies are doing to fight Bill C-18.
That legislation aims to help some Canadian news organizations by forcing dominant digital platforms to negotiate and compensate news content providers for linking to their sites.
What incurred the ire of the Heritage committee is that Google, which opposes the proposed law as a “link tax,” has been testing how it might restrict showing Canadian news results on searches as a way of protest.
When it came time for the committee to actually deal with a motion, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather — who is parliamentary secretary to Public Services Minister Helena Jaczek — proposed similar wording to Bittle’s proposal, but with the clarification that the companies won’t have to produce communications from individuals. Nor did it include Bittle’s suggestion that Google and Meta also produce a list of all third parties that have received funding from the companies for advocacy on Canadian regulations.
The change between Bittle’s proposed wording and Housefather’s motion came after some heated public response over the weekend. In a blog, Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor of internet law, said the proposal was “a stunning disregard for privacy and which could have a dangerous chilling effect on public participation.”
Then the Canadian Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter to the Heritage committee expressing “deep concern.” The demand for messages from outsiders to a company “poses a serious threat to the privacy of Canadians and to their rights to hold and express opinions on public issues. In addition, adopting it would put a chill on the legitimate work of thousands of associations, chambers of commerce, unions, social action groups, not-for-profits, and private enterprises across the country,” the letter says in part.
“The motion sets the stage for a major fishing operation that affects the rights, not only of the companies themselves but of third parties as well,” the letter says.
In an interview Monday, Housefather said “the internal and external communications is solely related to correspondence it [Meta] had relating to actions it had with Canadian regulations, such as blocking of news content under C-18. It wasn’t the broad request for third-party information that was in the original notice of motion given last week [by Bittle].”
Housefather said he didn’t see the Chamber of Commerce letter, but decided to propose different wording than Bittle because of complaints he heard from other Chambers.
“The type of documents that we subpoenaed today and from Google a couple of weeks ago are very much in the normal course for Parliamentary committees,” Housefather said. “Similar documents have been subpoenaed, and a much broader array of documents from McKinsey, sports federations, from the WE Charity. This is not some new, novel thing that we’re doing. We’re a parliamentary committee with oversight requirements.”
The wording of the actual motion passed by the committee is better than Bittle’s proposal, Holmes said. But. he added, “the principle still stands.”
Meta doesn’t have to provide copies of messages to and from individuals, he also pointed out, but Google does. “It just seems very messy policy-making.”
As for Housefather’s argument that demanding many types of documents isn’t new, Holmes said this issue is not about what an organization has done that might be legally offside, but about a proposed government policy.
In addition to demanding documents from Meta, the resolution passed by the Heritage committee on Monday also asked Meta chairman Mark Zuckerberg, Nick Clegg, president for Meta global affairs, and Chris Saniga, head of Canada for Meta, to testify for no less than two hours at a meeting whose date is yet to be set.
Kent Walker, president of global affairs and chief legal officer at Google parent Alphabet Inc. and Richard Gingras, vice-president of news, have also agreed to testify.