Canada must quickly pass legislation to oversee social media platforms, says an expert in cybersecurity law, including appointing an independent regulator who can levy “hefty” financial penalties.
“It is time to act now,” Emily Laidlaw, Canada Research Chair in Cybersecurity Law at the University of Calgary, told a Parliamentary committee on Monday.
“Platforms have tremendous power,” Laidlaw told the House of Commons ethics and privacy committee by videoconference. “Canada is currently a laggard in regulating platforms. Much of what this committee has discussed would be solved with Online Harms Laws legislation. They have it in Europe, the U.K, Australia.”
An online harms bill has been long promised by the Liberal government. As recently as last Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “we are serious about moving forward in protecting from online harms.”
The European Union Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts came into effect in August, initially covering very large online platforms and very large online search engines. Other online entities have to comply starting Feb. 17, 2024.
Briefly, the law lays down special obligations for online marketplaces to combat the online sale of illegal products and services; introduces measures to counter illegal content online and obligations for platforms to react quickly, while respecting fundamental rights; and protects minors online by prohibiting platforms from using targeted advertising based on the use of minors’ personal data as defined in EU law.
Australia has had an eSafety Commissioner to fight illegal online content and cyberbullying since 2015. In 2021 a new Online Safety Act was passed that makes online service providers more accountable for the online safety of users. It requires the industry to develop new codes to regulate illegal and restricted content.
Asked if Canada is too late, Laidlaw replied, “We’re not too late now, but we will be soon if we don’t introduce laws.”
In this country, the ethics committee has been holding hearings since October on the data harvesting practices of social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, X/Twitter, and WeChat, and how that data is shared with or accessed by foreign governments. It also covers misinformation and disinformation. The work started in January after the U.S. government banned federal employees from using China-based TikTok on government-owned devices. The Trudeau government followed with a similar ban in February.
Online harm is not a privacy issue, Laidlaw maintained but “a safety design problem,” so legislation has to encourage the private sector to design their platforms and restrict their ability to boost toxic content based on the emotional reaction users give to posts. “This fuels the spread of misinformation,” she said.
While social media platforms can be important collaborators and innovators in solving problems, Laidlaw said, and they are expected “to go above and beyond the law, addressing hateful content, disinformation, violence or extremism,” that doesn’t mean regulatory power isn’t needed — or that platforms should set industry standards by themselves.
At the very least, under a Canadian online harms bill, Laidlaw said, “platforms should have a duty to manage the risks of harm of their products, a duty to protect fundamental rights, transparency obligations matched with a way to vet transparency through audits and access to [platform] data by vetted researchers, creation of a regulator to investigate companies and educate the public, and access to recourse for victims.”
The committee also heard from Matt Malone, assistant law professor at B.C.’s Thompson Rivers University, who was critical of the government’s ban on federal employees using TikTok on government-owned devices. The app does deserve sanction for privacy violations, and data harvesting, but the ban is “selective,” he argued, noting there are no bans on apps from Russia. And Ottawa still advertises on all social media apps, he said, including TikTok.
In fact, he argued, Ottawa should ban federal employees from using any social media apps because of data collection worries, unless there is a business reason, and stop advertising on them.
It’s “crazy” that federal employees can still use these apps, he said.
The “real culprit is Canadian law,” he added, which allows organizations to collect personal data of Canadians and move it to other countries instead of forcing firms to hold and process it here.