OTTAWA — The fallout from a Facebook whistleblower's explosive revelations this month continues to descend on Canada as politicians and experts grapple with how to regulate Big Tech amid renewed questions on the harm it can wreak.
A prolonged "techlash" over the past few years has seen western countries adopt varying degrees of platform regulation, with users becoming increasingly alive to the fractured civic bonds brought on by digital echo chambers. But so far no single approach to regulating and policing the platforms has emerged as a solution.
New Democrats are the latest to demand a federal government crackdown on social media giants. On Monday, NDP MP Charlie Angus called on Ottawa to establish an independent watchdog that tackles disinformation, hateful posts, and algorithm transparency, citing a former Facebook executive.
Frances Haugen testified before a U.S. Senate committee on Oct. 5 that the company's products harm children and fuel polarization in the U.S., a claim supported by internal company research leaked to the Wall Street Journal.
"Ms. Haugen reveals that Facebook knew that its algorithms are driving hate content and leading to breakdown in civic engagement," Angus said.
"Facebook made the decision to incentivize profits through its use of its algorithms over the well-being of its users."
As the company confronts intense public scrutiny over how its coding fans inflammatory rhetoric and affects users' self-esteem, Angus is proposing to create an independent ombudsman accountable to the House of Commons, akin to Canada's ethics and privacy commissioners.
"Rather than relying on outdated institutions like the Competition Bureau or the CRTC, it's time for the federal government to establish a regulator that actually understands this file," he said.
Facebook Canada said it continues to make investments that target misinformation and harmful content, and stands ready to collaborate with lawmakers on a new legal frameworks for platforms.
“As we’ve shared, we welcome regulation and have been vocal calling for a new set of public rules for all technology companies to follow. It’s been 25 years since the rules for the Internet have been updated and it’s time for industry standards to be introduced so private companies aren’t making these decisions on their own," Rachel Curran, policy manager at Facebook Canada, said in a statement.
Online hate remains on Ottawa's radar as global observers continue to question Facebook's role in tragedies ranging from the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand to deadly military violence directed at Myanmar's Rohingya minority, along with racist posts in Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to overhaul Internet rules after a pair of bills aiming to regulate social media giants and tackle online hate died on the order paper this year.
In last month's federal election campaign, he promised to introduce legislation within 100 days of forming government that combats harmful online materials.
His plan would create a digital safety commissioner to enforce a new regime that targets child pornography, terrorist content, hate speech, and other harmful posts on social media platforms. The regulator could order social media companies to take down posts within 24 hours.
Sam Andrey, director of policy and research at the Ryerson Leadership Lab, welcomes the new blueprint. But he suggested enhancing transparency at tech giants by requiring details on algorithms, not just company data on illegal content and post takedowns.
Andrey also said the government's proposal targets sites where the posts are public, such as YouTube and Facebook, but not private messages on platforms such as the Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
"But there's mounting evidence ... that private platforms, including things like WhatsApp or WeChat, can contribute to the spread of online harm," he said, suggesting a way to flag troubling messages.
Charter questions of privacy and free expression may well come into play as the government considers whether the regime should cover private communication, whether to expand its scope to other harmful activity such as impersonation, and how proactive the digital safety commissioner and accompanying tribunal could be.
Vivek Krishnamurthy, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, noted that most large platforms already have policies that claim to meet or exceed the government's would-be rules on harmful material, with some seeking to highlight or remove misleading information — about COVID-19 vaccines, for example.
New Democrats and Conservatives have also questioned why a new regulator is needed to crack down on exploitive material when the Criminal Code already bars child pornography, hate speech, and the knowing distribution of illicit images.
Krishnamurthy says the government is focusing too heavily on "culture war" wedge points rather than data privacy, which involves fewer grey areas.
"There's no real work happening on Big Tech and competition in Canada," he added.
Trudeau has said he will reintroduce legislation to modernize the broadcasting regime in a way that could force Internet steaming sites such as Netflix and Spotify to showcase Canadian content and cough up financial contributions to bolster Canadian creators.
Bill C-10, which died in the Senate in August after the election was triggered, provoked months of debate over whether its regulation of online videos would amount to government overreach, with free speech advocates criticizing the bill and the arts community supporting it.
Angus said Monday that the bill amounted to a "political dumpster fire" and that having the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) address Facebook algorithms would bring "a 1980s solution to a 21st-century problem." He added that Bill C-10 included "good ideas" around applying broadcast rules for funding to Big Tech.
"Tax the SOBs," he said of tech behemoths.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said earlier this month the Liberal government will move ahead with legislation finalizing the enactment of a Digital Services Tax by Jan. 1. The tax would come into effect two years later on Jan. 1, 2024, if a tax regime under a newly inked global agreement has not already come into force.
A spokesperson for Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said comment is not possible until cabinet has been formed, but pointed to the Liberals' platform pledges, including a plank requiring digital giants to pay legacy media outlets for linking to their work.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2021.
Facebook funds a fellowship that supports journalism positions at The Canadian Press.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press