POLITICS
12/12/2018 11:41 EST | Updated 12/12/2018 12:41 EST

MPs Go After Facebook, Google By Proposing More Government Oversight

In the age of disinformation, the preference is for tech giants to self-regulate. But MPs aren't holding their breath.

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Chair Bob Zimmer gestures to a reporter during a news conference in Ottawa on Dec. 11, 2018.
Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Chair Bob Zimmer gestures to a reporter during a news conference in Ottawa on Dec. 11, 2018.

OTTAWA — Social media companies should rid their platforms of inauthentic accounts and give an oversight body the power to audit Facebook and Google's algorithms, MPs said Tuesday in a report focused on curbing the spread of disinformation online.

These were two recommendations out of 26 proposed by a Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics after an eight-month study sparked by concerns Canadians' personal information may have been stolen by the data firm Cambridge Analytica. The scope of the study quickly widened after MPs recognized how influential the unregulated tech giants' are over public opinion.

The report highlights how high-profile data breaches and scandals have illuminated gaps in accountability structures for Facebook and Google. It also acknowledges the limits of government intervention over U.S.-based social media companies.

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Chair Bob Zimmer (left) and Deputy-Chair Charlie Angus (right) look on as deputy-chair Nathaniel Erskine-Smith speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on Dec. 11, 2018.

Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, chair of the committee, admitted MPs had "stumbled on an iceberg" and stressed the urgency of the issue to reporters, saying unchecked algorithm-based social platforms will continue to influence elections.

"We've seen it done before. We've seen it just done in the [U.S.] midterms. Am I concerned about that in Canada? Absolutely," he said.

The report, "Democracy Under Threat: Risks and Solutions In The Era Of Disinformation And Data Monopoly," calls for social media platforms to delete "inauthentic and fraudulent" accounts as well as label paid ads and content produced by bots.

Facebook announced in October that it took action to combat the spread of disinformation on its platform, most recently in lead up to the U.S. midterms. The company said it deleted 559 pages and 251 accounts that "consistently" broke its rules against spam and "coordinated inauthentic behavior." They were pages created "to stir up political debate, including in the US, the Middle East, Russia and the U.K.," Facebook explained.

Watch: Google CEO grilled by U.S. Congress on political bias and privacy

Zimmer said the government needs to act after Facebook and Google have failed to take effective action after international concern over Cambridge Analytica's unauthorized use of Facebook data to mobilize a pro-Brexit campaign.

He acknowledged government intervention may come off as an unsavoury idea in order to draw a line on what kind of information is or isn't deemed acceptable for public consumption.

The committee would prefer if tech companies could self-regulate, Zimmer said, but he isn't holding his breath.

We're not done with Facebook. And we're not done with Google.Committee Chair Bob Zimmer

Members of the committee travelled to London last month to participate in a nine-country "international grand committee" to question Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg about his company's efforts to combat "fake news."

But Zuckerberg ignored repeat invitations and didn't show up.

"The fact that Mark Zuckerberg didn't appear and that we weren't getting fulsome answers from some of these big platforms," he said. "We're not done with Facebook. And we're not done with Google."

Conservative MP Peter Kent suggested tech companies are too fixated on "creating revenue-generating applications and opportunities and not nearly prudent in terms of protecting the privacy of individuals."

Committee member NDP MP Charlie Angus said the scope of the study surprised him.

"It dropped us into a very large and dark and bizarre world," he said.

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Pew Research Center released a study earlier this week finding that in 2018, social media has outpaced print as a news source for Americans, in a study that also tracked television, news websites, and radio consumption habits. It's the first time social media, which placed fourth in the study, has surpassed print as a news source since Pew started tracking reader trends.

Given the influence Facebook and Google, Angus said the companies need to be more transparent about their inner workings because they're not living up to a corporate responsibility to protect their users' data. Facebook and Google have "powers that are unprecedented in terms of their ability to set the terms of discussion in civil society," he said.

The committee said it intends to work with other members of the nine-country international grand committee to draft regulations to keep international data monopolies in check.

"Canada is not big enough to do this on our own," Angus said.

Election reform bill in last stages

There's a bill in Parliament, Bill C-76, on the cusp of becoming law that aims to address many of the concerns raised by MPs.

The bill updates Canada's election law and attempts to limit foreign interference in Canadian elections. It's expected to be voted on in the House of Commons as early as Wednesday.

The legislation introduces new spending limits for political parties and advocacy groups during a three-month window preceding a fixed election.

But Duff Conacher, co-founder of the advocacy group Democracy Watch, thinks the new legislation is weak because though there are measure to limit "fake online advertising" paid by foreigners, it does "nothing" to stop Canadians or Canadian entities from paying for fake online election ads.

"If federal politicians actually want to ensure fair and democratic Canadian elections, the law must be changed to prohibit all false claims and false promises, lower donation limits, reverse the increase in interest group ad spending, add new measures to stop secret, false online election ads," he said.