The Canadian government is “actively considering” regulating social media giants and believes that self-regulation of the platforms has failed.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould told the Star and BuzzFeed News that “all options are on the table” when it comes to applying domestic rules to international social media and tech giants like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter.
“We recognize that self-regulation is not yielding the results that societies are expecting these companies to deliver,” Gould said in an interview Monday.
“We are actively talking to partners around the world. We’re actively talking to experts here in Canada as well in terms of what can be done. And I remain open to many different options as to how we can ensure better behaviour.”
The Star and BuzzFeed News are investigating how political parties, pressure groups, and foreign actors are influencing Canada’s political debate in the lead-up to the next federal election, including the role social media companies play in disseminating information and misinformation.
Gould’s comments come as like-minded countries pledged to crack down on social media companies.
Australia passed a stringent law that demands social media companies quickly remove violent content from their platforms in light on the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand. Under the new law, social media executives could receive a prison sentence or face hefty fines against their companies if the content is not taken down “expeditiously.”
In the UK, a parliamentary committee suggested that social media companies should be subjected to independent oversight and fined over “online harms.” The UK is looking to appoint an independent regulator to oversee social media companies’ protection of its users and enforce penalties like fines and blocked website access where appropriate.
The much-anticipated white paper follows a UK Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee report that was widely seen a condemnation of Facebook and called the company “digital gangsters.”
The paper specifically cited incitements of violence, disinformation, and children accessing inappropriate material as examples of harmful content companies would have to tackle. The proposal is not final. The UK government will undergo a 12-week consultation process before enacting any measures.
But as countries begin to regulate social media giants, not all of them have citizen protection in mind. In Russia, a fake news law makes it illegal to criticize the president, and Singapore’s anti-disinformation bill has critics worried that too much rests on the government’s definition of what is false information.
“We better get the democratic governance right if we have any hope of pushing back against the autocratic model,” said Taylor Owen, an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University in Montreal.
Owen says countries don’t have to legislate all aspects of social media at once. Instead, they can go for low-hanging fruit like ad regulation before moving into tricky areas like regulating content, which gets into issues of free speech and who’s liable for what’s posted on the platform.
“The challenge of [content moderation] is that it’s the most difficult piece of this puzzle,” Owen said.
Few concrete suggestions have been made by Canada’s Liberal government, who have been threatening to bring in rules regarding hate speech, misinformation campaigns, and electoral meddling on social media platforms for years.
Gould has broached the issue of regulation with the social media giants. She said they don’t believe they should be brought under Canadian laws, and that it’s “not fair” for the companies to expect special treatment.
“They see themselves as actors operating on a different level than other companies operating in our society. And I think that is not fair to citizens and to Canadians,” Gould said.
“And I think that one thing that we need to do as, partly government but it’s partly civil society, is to have a much more robust conversation about how these companies operate, what they do with our data, and what the consequences are of that for us as individuals but also collectively.”
In a statement, opposition democratic institutions critic Stephanie Kusie said that the Conservatives do not support regulating social media giants.
“Conservatives recognize the seriousness of safeguarding our democracy, however the government should not be policing social media platforms and free speech in this country,” Kusie wrote.
“Instead of trying to control the Internet, the real issue is that the government is failing to protect Canada’s democratic process from foreign interference. With the Liberals’ new elections bill, C-76, right up until the day the elections begin foreign entities are free to influence voters through a third party advertising loophole. Canadians should be concerned that practical measures to prevent these forms of interference [were] voted down by the Liberals.”
There’s little time before the next federal election to introduce sweeping new rules for social media companies, but Gould said one possibility is to make public government research on the issue that could provide a starting point for whoever forms the next government.
Whatever new legislation there is would come on the heels of Canada’s election advertising transparency laws. After the laws were enacted, Google said it will opt to not accept any election advertising at all, rather than keep a registry of all ads and comply with the law. For Owen, this shows that “Canada is not a big enough market to force large scale change by itself.” He said there should be international collaboration between governments.
“Leaving all markets is not an option,” he said.
In a statement, Google Canada’s Colin McKay said the web giant has met with Gould’s office several times and is “committed” to fighting misinformation.
“Just as Google is committed to providing Canadians with information and services to help them participate in the federal election, we’re equally committed to combating misinformation and working with the Canadian government to fight cyber threats,” McKay, the head of Google Canada’s government policy branch, said in a statement.
“We have every intention of continuing our close work with government to protect Canada’s democratic institutions and election activities.”
BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star are investigating the ways in which political parties, third-party pressure groups, foreign powers, and individuals are influencing Canada’s political debate in the run-up to this fall’s federal election. This report was published as part of that collaboration.
This article was edited from a previous version to make clear the Canadian government is considering regulating both social media and tech giants.