Regulate social media, says Canadian parliamentary committee

Social media platforms based in Canada should regulated by a law forcing them to delete “manifestly illegal content in a timely fashion” including hate speech harassment and disinformation, a parliamentary committee has recommended.

That was one of the recommendations made Tuesday by the House of Commons access to information, privacy and ethics committee into the impact social media platforms can have on democracy. The committee’s work started with investigating allegations that personal information of some 87 million Facebook users – including Canadians — wound up in the hands of U.K. political analysis firm Cambridge Analytica.

Analysis of that data allegedly was used in social media campaigns in the 2016 U.S. elections and the U.K. Brexit referendum.

“Changes to Canada’s legislative and regulatory landscape are needed in order to neutralize the threat that disinformation and misinformation campaigns pose to the country’s democratic process,” the committee concluded.

“It is critical that the Government of Canada be a leader in bringing in sustainable legislative solutions to protect the personal data of Canadians without hampering innovation. It must also invest the time and resources needed to better educate Canadians about the dangers of the era of disinformation and data-opolies. No effort should be spared so that Canadians can participate in the digital economy and the democratic process without fear.”

It also said “social media platforms should carry out a thorough self-examination, as they have an important choice to make. Do they wish to continue with a business model designed to be addictive while ignoring the harmful effects their platforms can have on the social fabric, and their long-term human impact? Or would they rather make technology more ethical and compatible with the capabilities of the human mind? The committee sincerely hopes that they will chose the latter.”

Among the other 25 recommendations:
–legislation obliging social media platforms to clearly label content produced automatically or algorithmically (e.g. by ‘bots’); to identify and remove inauthentic and fraudulent accounts impersonating others for malicious reasons; to adhere to a code of practices that would forbid deceptive or unfair practices and require prompt responses to reports of harassment, threats and hate speech and require the removal of defamatory, fraudulent, and maliciously manipulated content (e.g. “deep fake” videos); and to clearly label paid political or other advertising;
–the government enact transparency requirements for algorithms as well as give a regulatory body the authority to audit algorithms;
–the government make federal political parties subject to the federal private sector privacy law. (The government has already said it is studying this idea, but won’t commit to it);
–Ottawa establish rules and guidelines regarding data ownership and data sovereignty “with the objective of putting a stop to the non-consented collection and use of citizens’ personal information. These rules and guidelines should address the challenges presented by cloud computing”;
–the government take all steps to prevent foreign funding and influence in elections, including foreign charitable funding. (Amendments passed this week to the Canada Elections Act put reporting requirements on third parties and social media to track advertising);
–the government study the potential economic harms by “data-opolies”, including whether the Competition Act needs to be changed.
–and to lessen the power of “data-opolies” (which one witness described companies that control a key platform through which a significant volume and variety of personal data flows) the privacy law be changed to give residents the right to move their personal data from one platform to another. It also recommended the Competition Act be changed so that non-price effects, such as data-driven mergers, be taken into account when it determines if there is enough competition in a market.

Representatives of Google Canada and Verizon Communication’s Oath division (which owns Yahoo, Tumblr and AOL) told the committee indusry self-regulation is preferable, the committee said it believes some type of government regulation is needed.

Canada’s privacy commissioner is still investigating Canadian angle of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, including looking at the possible involvement of Victoria, B.C.-based AggregateIQ.

Meanwhile in October the U.K. information commissioner fined Facebook the equivalent of $840,000 after concluding that between 2007 and 2014 Facebook processed the personal information of users and their friends unfairly by allowing application developers access to their information without sufficiently clear and informed consent.

According to the Globe and Mail, Conservative MP and committee chair Robert Zimmer said he hopes the rerport increases awareness among Canadians of what he called the “surveillance system” behind websites and smart phone apps.

LIberal MP Frank Baylis told the Globe, “We thought we were looking at one scandal but what is being done is effectively we are being spied on every time we hit ‘I agree.’

The newspaper quoted Karin Gould, the minister for democratic institutions, as saying the government is taking to Facebook, Google and others about how to address concerns about soicla media and election campaigns.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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