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Accountability and free speech came to the fore at parliament’s House Affairs committee as opposition members grilled Democratic Institutions minister Karina Gould over plans to regulate social media under the rubric preventing election interference.
Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie questioned how a government-appointed panel tapped to monitor and rout purported misinformation during this year’s federal vote can “find the delicate balance between free speech and the integrity of our elections.”
In her opening statement, Gould said talks with Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft were “progressing slowly” because the mega-platforms for online dissemination have been reluctant to submit to government demands.
“(Our discussions) have not yet yielded the results we expected,” said Gould. “But we remain steadfast in our commitment to secure change from them.”
Kusie said that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer “was open to regulation” but demanded to know the government’s approach and how it would get such results.
“Canadians are looking at a response for what you are prepared to do to find that balance … I’m not really seeing a direct, clear plan of action,” said Kusie.
“This a moment where all options are on the table,” said Gould.
In addition to regulating these internet giants, a five-member panel of “top civil servants” including the privy council clerk, national security and intelligence adviser and deputy ministers of justice, public safety, and foreign affairs will warn the public of potential threats and address social media activities deemed disruptive to the democratic process.
New Democrat MP David Christopherson challenged Gould on the panel’s transparency, its conduct, and whether its decisions could be reviewed by all elected officials.
“Parliament is much like my dad. Trust everyone, but always cut the cards,” said Christopherson. “Assuming nothing is going to change because we’ve got a majority government … will there be built into the process an opportunity for parliament to review the information they received and the action they chose or not chose to take?”
Gould said the report would be presented at the National Security Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, or NSICOP, where members have security clearance to review classified material.
Pushed by Christopherson on increased access for the House Affairs committee via vetting or redaction, Gould took it under advisement.
“Perhaps that’s a good way to do it,” she said.
According to the Canadian Security Establishment’s latest report, attempts to spread misinformation to sway voters or gin up existing civic tensions on the cusp of an election are just a few avenues the country is vulnerable to malicious online intent.
Hostile state actors target government institutions on a daily basis says Cyberthreats to Canada’s Democratic Process 2019, which highlights current threats and what to expect this election.
“Nation-states are constantly deploying cyber capabilities to try to gain access to Government of Canada networks and the communications of federal government officials,” says CSE. “A small number of nation-states have undertaken the majority of the cyber activity against democratic processes worldwide.”
While Canada was attacked during the 2015 election by mostly “hacktivists” and thrill seekers, CSE warns that technological advances since then means ever more sophisticated regimes – like Vladimir Putin’s Russia that cyber-meddled in the last U.S. election – present additional threats to the integrity of our own upcoming vote.
“During the 2015 federal election, Canada’s democratic process was targeted by low-sophistication cyber threat activity. It is highly probable that the perpetrators were hacktivists and cybercriminals,” says CSE, noting the most impressive ones were chronicled by mainstream media.
The CSE also notes terror groups’ success employing social media to further their aims, but to date they “have not demonstrated the intent to use cyber capabilities to influence democratic processes globally or in Canada.”
In addition to $48 million Gould said the government earmarked to backstop enhanced cybersecurity measures and elections monitoring, the minister noted the $7 million funding for public awareness ‘social media literacy’ campaigns.
In the lead-up to the federal vote, the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force – comprised of CSIS, RCMP, CSE and Foreign Affairs – will keep the government’s media monitoring panel abreast of any respective threats.