OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says social media platforms and tech giants have failed Canadian users and it’s time the government stepped in.
According to prepared remarks obtained by the Star, the Liberal government is set to unveil a framework for reining in tech giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon. The so-called “Digital Charter” will outline the government’s expectations on issues such as data ownership, privacy protections and the online dissemination of hate — and Trudeau said the government is considering “meaningful” financial penalties for companies that break the rules.
Trudeau was expected to deliver the remarks at a gathering of political leaders and tech executives in Paris early Thursday morning, a day after dozens of countries and some of the world’s largest tech companies signed on to the “Christchurch Call,” a pledge to curb violent extremism online. The pledge is named after the March terrorist attack in New Zealand that saw the murder of 51 people livestreamed on Facebook.
In the prepared remarks, Trudeau calls the digital sphere the new “Wild West” — and suggests the time for regulation has come.
“It used to be that governments had the tools they needed to protect their citizens in every sphere. Now, citizens are living more and more in a digital space that’s unregulated. This leaves people incredibly vulnerable,” Trudeau’s speech read.
“It’s up to the platforms, and governments, to take their responsibilities seriously, and ensure that people are protected online.”
The speech is sparse on details of what the “Digital Charter” will include, save for principles like universal access and transparency. A government source, speaking on the condition they not be named, said it will also touch on things like data sovereignty and ownership, and Canadians’ right to privacy.
Navdeep Bains, the innovation and economic development minister, will release the full Digital Charter at the end of the month. Trudeau’s speech said that other ministers will announce specific plans for addressing the digital sphere, promising a government-wide approach to an issue that has confounded politicians and experts: how does a national government regulate internet giants that have become central to the lives of billions?
The international push to do just that appears to be growing.
Multiple candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination in the U.S. are talking about using antitrust laws to break up Facebook. The German government recently used such laws to limit the social media giant’s data gathering. And the European Union’s recent digital privacy regulations have set an international standard on citizens’ right to privacy in the information age.
The Christchurch Call, signed in Paris on Wednesday, represents a growing international desire to tackle issues like hate speech, violent extremism, and election interference.
In his speech, Trudeau said the Christchurch massacre was not a wake-up call, but the final straw for governments and tech companies in the push to eliminate violent extremism online.
“With the power of the internet, and through lack of proper oversight, the hateful can champion their views, and incite violence, from behind a computer screen and without consequence,” Trudeau’s speech reads.
“It is our moral responsibility, as leaders in government and in business, to denounce this hatred at every turn. We must stand united. And we must fight back.”
Internet giants, buffeted by years of widespread criticism and negative press, seem to be listening. After signing the Chirstchurch Call, five major U.S.-based tech companies — Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Twitter — issued an unprecedented joint statement pledging to do more.
“The terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand in March were a horrifying tragedy. And so it is right that we come together, resolute in our commitment to ensure we are doing all we can to fight the hatred and extremism that lead to terrorist violence,” the companies’ joint statement read.
“Terrorism and violent extremism are complex societal problems that require an all-of-society response. For our part, the commitments we are making today will further strengthen the partnership that governments, society and the technology industry must have to address this threat.”
The companies pledged to work together on developing new technology to “detect and remove terrorist and violent extremist content more effectively,” creating crisis protocols to deal with active violent events, partnering with governments to increase education around extremist content, and “working collaboratively across industry to attack the root causes of extremism and hatred online.”
But the Canadian government clearly believes that the time for promises of self-regulation has passed.
Taylor Owen, an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill, said that the international push to regulate social media companies is a positive step, but ultimately it will be up to individual countries to craft their own regulations.
“(The Christchurch Call) is never going to provide the teeth that it needs to, because it’s not an official thing, it’s just a group of countries who put their hands up and said they agree to do something. It has no power,” Owen said in an interview Wednesday.
“The institutions that have power are the national governments . . . I agree there needs to be international coordination, because it needs to happen at scale globally, across many jurisdictions. And it gives governments political cover to operate domestically, if other governments are doing it. And it creates a market incentive for the companies to adhere.”
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier