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Towards better regulation of social media

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have done a lot of good in our world. Their entry into our universe has meant that anyone with an internet connection can access an unprecedented amount of information and reach out to thousands of people, or even hundreds of thousands of people, at very little cost. Facebook alone has two billion users worldwide. Social media has indeed brought the world closer.

However, serious concerns about these platforms began as soon as they took flight. As corporate innovators, these companies have found ingenious ways to collect personal information at a rate completely unheard of before, bundling it and marketing it for great profit. Our privacy laws, at the time when these new platforms were born, didn’t contain the level of protection required to stop abuse. In Canada, they still don’t.

Misinformation and hate speech found on these platforms have had devastating effects on peoples lives, and in some cases undermined democratic structures. Though the sector has made progress in addressing these concerns its self-regulation efforts, to date, have fallen short.

After incontrovertible proof of Russian interference via social media platforms in the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook vowed to guard against such manipulation during last year’s US midterm congressional elections. Under its new rules, foreign funders were prohibited from paying for political ads. Advertisers were required to identify who was paying for the ad and where they were located. This information was then to be made available to the users receiving the ads. Unfortunately, in some cases Facebook failed to confirm whether the information provided was correct. So users couldn’t be sure as to the provenance of the ads.

There is now widespread consensus among democratic governments studying the issue that self regulation doesn't work. Our laws must be redesigned to ensure social media spaces have similar rules to those we’ve come to expect in other public spaces, like our community parks and town squares. We need a government-provided compulsory code of ethics: a code that stops fake news, electoral interference, and the abuse of user data that have been so prevalent on these platforms in the past.

A recent UK Parliamentary Committee report recommends setting up an independent regulator of ‘big tech’ to stem data abuses, misleading or malicious content, and bullying of smaller companies trying to make their way into the market. The European Union recently implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to require, among other things, that companies obtain explicit consent before personal information is collected or used to target people with particular types of content.  Many European countries have already armed their justice systems with the means to hold those hosting false and harmful content to account with hefty fines and immediate orders of removal.

In Canada, the new Elections Modernization Act attempts to stem the flow of disinformation and foreign interference during the election. It’s a good first step, but the results remain to be seen. Google has already reacted by announcing they will not host any political advertising during the coming federal election, saying it found the new rules “extremely difficult”. This decision to withdraw entirely may result in shutting out many voices who’ve come to depend on platforms such as these to take part in healthy democratic debate with complete transparency. Although opting out is certainly an option for these companies, it would be much preferred that they work with governments to figure out how to keep access to these platforms open to everyone who is willing to abide by the new code.

Our House of Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee has set its sights on a broad approach, similar to that taken in the European Union. It recently recommended new regulations that would force companies to remove “manifestly illegal content in a timely fashion” as well as provide much greater protection against personal data being collected and used without meaningful consent. To strengthen our democracy and protect the human right to privacy, these recommendations should be implemented without delay.