Canada tries to ride the median in quandary over big tech

Canada tries to ride the median in quandary over big tech

NDP MP Charlie Angus is not one to mince words, and these days, he saves his most cutting criticisms for the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon.

Big tech, he says, is ruthless, “a kill-zone of innovation.” They take people’s personal information without asking, then turn around and sell it. They push extremist content, they are complicit in human rights abuses, they spread spurious information, they undermine democracy.

But Angus has also seen social media transform his enormous northern Ontario riding, often for the better. He is an avid user of Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, chatting and advertising to connect with his constituents in remote First Nations communities. And he has been amazed as the constituents — especially Indigenous youth — use the platforms to talk to each other, gaining confidence and knowledge.

He is hooked by social media’s potential to link disparate peoples together, to generate ideas, to collaborate, to start businesses with global reach. But not so hooked, he says, that he is going to sit on the sidelines and take potshots while the technology behemoths steamroll over small business, privacy rights and the roots of democracy.

“The days when they can ignore corporate, legal and moral obligations are over. Democratic governments are showing a willingness to take them on with legislation and to break up the monopoly if necessary,” Angus warns in a press release in which MPs from all parties summon the corporations and experts for an “international grand committee” in Ottawa at the end of the month.

Canadian legislators are looking for a better way, and they are poised to move from the theoretical to the practical. But they are torn between a strong-arm European approach to cracking down on the corporations and how they operate, and a “wild west” American approach that relies on voluntary good behaviour.

Rather than pick a lane, Canada will try to ride the median.

While there is popular appeal in standing up strong in favour of privacy protections and against the might of powerful corporations (see Europe), there is also a need to be flexible in the face of rapidly changing technology so that businesses can take full advantage of the benefits of technology (see the U.S.). And given that the United States is so integrated into the everyday lives and business of Canadians, compatibility is also a top priority.

Last Thursday in Paris and a day after signing on to the “Christchurch call for action” against online hate speech and extremism, the prime minister vaguely announced his government’s intention to set up a “digital charter” that would set out some principles for big tech to adhere to. It was a clear indication of taking a middle way and the start of a process that will pick up momentum in the next few weeks.

“By allaying people’s fears and anxieties, and by restoring trust in the digital world, we can focus on the incredible benefits of technology,” Justin Trudeau said. “We can have better banking, more streamlined search, innovative medicine and barrier-free business.”

Details for the charter will come from Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains on Tuesday, but the government has already indicated it will set out principles such as accessibility, privacy protection, transparency and control over personal information. It will be mainly aspirational rather than prescriptive, but that part will come too.

At the end of May in the context of the international grand committee and global meetings on the responsibilities of digital platforms, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould will roll out more details about legislative steps that could be taken to give the government more clout.

Trudeau has also indicated that government should be able to impose meaningful financial penalties on big digital companies that don’t respect the rules.

The package of proposals will be deeply inspired by the new U.K. model centred around “duty of care,” which makes companies responsible for keeping users of their services safe. A regulator sets safety standards. And there are penalties imposed on any platforms that don’t abide by the standards.

The goal is to shift the onus onto the companies themselves, rather than government officials, to police their own content and behaviour.

The stakes are high, both in getting the balance right for Canadian businesses and users of social media, and also for Canada’s role in the world.

When Trudeau was in Paris and signing on to the Christchurch call, the United States was conspicuous in its absence. French President Emmanuel Macron was asked pointedly about how he expected to progress without the United States signing on. And twice, Macron pointed to Trudeau’s presence as a symbol of a North American alliance with Europe and New Zealand in defeating hate speech on the internet.

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, bids farewell to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he leaves the Elysee presidential palace following their meeting in Paris on May 16, a day after signing on to the Christchurch call for action against online hate speech and extremism.

Riding the median may be the Canadian way, but it won’t be comfortable.

Heather Scoffield is an economics columnist based in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @hscoffield

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