OTTAWA – New Democrats are calling on the federal government to crack down on social media giants following recent disclosures from a Facebook executive that have reignited questions about how to regulate big tech.
NDP MP Charlie Angus called on Ottawa to establish an independent watchdog to tackle disinformation, hate messages and algorithm transparency on digital platforms.
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told a U.S. Senate committee earlier this month that the company’s products are harming children and fueling polarization in the United States, a claim supported by internal company research disclosed to the Wall Street Journal.
âMs. Haugen reveals that Facebook knew its algorithms were generating hateful content and leading to a breakdown in civic engagement,â Angus said.
“Facebook has made the decision to drive profits by using its algorithms to the detriment of the well-being of its users.”
As the company faces intense public scrutiny into how its coding encourages inflammatory rhetoric and affects user self-esteem, Angus proposes to create an independent ombudsman accountable to the House of Commons, similar to the Commissioners at ethics and privacy in Canada.
“Rather than relying on outdated institutions like the Competition Bureau or the CRTC, it is time for the federal government to put in place a regulator that really understands this issue,” he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeatedly pledged to revise Internet rules during the federal election last month.
One of them vowed to introduce a bill within 100 days of forming the government to tackle harmful online content, following a failed Liberal bill to regulate Facebook and other platforms.
The plan would create a digital security commissioner to enforce a new regime that targets child pornography, terrorist content, hate speech and other harmful posts on social media platforms. The regulator’s teeth are said to be sharp enough to order social media companies to remove posts within 24 hours.
Many large platforms already have policies that claim to meet or exceed these requirements, with some seeking to highlight or remove misleading information – on COVID-19 vaccines, for example.
New Democrats and Conservatives have also questioned why a new regulator is needed to crack down on exploitative material when the Criminal Code already bans child pornography, hate speech and the knowing distribution of illicit images.
Trudeau further said he would reintroduce provisions of Bill C-10, which died in the Senate in August after the election was called. The legislation was intended to place global online streaming giants such as Netflix and YouTube under the auspices of the Broadcasting Act, requiring them to promote Canadian content and financially support Canadian cultural industries. The scheme is overseen by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
Angus said on Monday the bill amounted to a “political garbage can fire” and that Canada’s telecommunications regulator attacking Facebook’s algorithms would provide “a 1980s solution to a 21st century problem.” .
The legislation sparked months of debate over whether its regulation of online videos amounted to government overbreadth, with free speech advocates criticizing the bill and the arts community backing it.
“I think it’s probably better for us to establish an independent agent of Parliament – who reports to Parliament, who understands the technology, who understands the algorithms – than to rely on the schlimazel that is the CRTC.” Angus said, adding that Bill C-10 included “good ideas” regarding the application of the broadcast rules for the financing of large technologies.
Facebook was not immediately available for comment on Monday.
In an emailed statement last week, Facebook Canada said it continues to make investments targeting disinformation and harmful content.
âCanadians come to Facebook to connect with loved ones, grow their businesses and share what matters to them,â the company wrote.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on October 18, 2021.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press