Ottawa surrenders regulating false information spread online to social media giants

The Liberal government is still “securing voluntary action” by social media companies to stop the spread of false information on their platforms and according to Democratic Institutions minister Karina Gould, just Microsoft and Facebook have agreed to the terms

Jason Unrau Montreal QC

The Liberal government is still “securing voluntary action” by social media companies to stop the spread of false information on their platforms and according to Democratic Institutions minister Karina Gould, just Microsoft and Facebook have agreed to the terms.

Gould made the remarks Monday afternoon during an update to the House of Commons on purported measures being taken so “the wild-west, online era cannot continue.”

But without buy-in from Google and Twitter, Gould admitted that corporate compliance with the government’s Canada Declaration on Electoral Integrity Online would be complaints-based and self-regulated.

“I’ve said numerous times, this is voluntary principles,” Gould told reporters outside the House of Commons. “It’s up to the platforms now to ensure that they comply with it…all of us Canadians, voters, political parties, the media have a role to play in holding them to account to make sure they are indeed taking down fake accounts, taking down inauthentic content.”

Gould’s position is a significant walk-back from her late-March appearance at the House Affairs committee where she told MPs that “all options are on the table” when it came to policing fake news and false information on the internet.

Beyond amendments to the Elections Act that ban third-party advertisers from accepting money from foreign entities, the government established a five-member panel of “top civil servants” to warn the public of potential threats and address social media activities deemed disruptive to the democratic process.

According to the Canadian Security Establishment, foreign actors using misinformation to sway voters or gin up existing civic tensions on the cusp of an election are but a few avenues Canada is vulnerable.

Hostile state actors target government institutions on a daily basis says CSE’s report 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 2015’s election by mostly “hacktivists”, 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.

Asked who would decide what constituted misinformation, Gould parsed the definition.

“Misinformation is usually someone who’s inadvertently sharing false information about a subject but disinformation is usually a coordinated attempt to try and undermine people’s trust,” she explained.

Using social media to purposely direct voters to a bogus polling station, for example, would be “disinformation” said Gould.

“With regards to fake accounts Facebook has mentioned they’ve taken down billions of fake accounts,” said Gould. “These are ones that are for example are coming out of the (Internet Research Agency) in St. Petersburg that are trying to pose as domestic actors but they’re not.”

“Inauthentic content could be again fake information that is designed to try and misrepresent different politicians or political parties,” she added.

New Democrat MP Daniel Blaikie, the party’s democratic reform critic, said Gould’s announcement was a rehash with no assurances about prevention.

“They repeated a promise, it’s not new, that they’re going to implement a protocol when events happen to report on them,” Blaikie told reporters. “But we’re interested in what they’re going to do to stop them happening in the first place.”

“It’s going to be left to corporations to make these decisions and they’re going to have government cheerleading on the side saying ‘be your best self, be your best self.’  That’s not the way you get things done, particularly with big guys like these.”

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