OTTAWA — Tech giants will be in the hot seat this week as politicians from Canada and 10 other countries gather to consider how best to protect citizens’ privacy and their democracies in the age of social media.
The international grand committee on big data, privacy and democracy is meeting in Ottawa for three days, starting Monday.
It will hear from experts on how best governments can prevent the use of social media to make unauthorized use of individuals’ personal information, spread fake news, sow dissension and manipulate election outcomes.
Committee members will also grill representatives from a host of internet giants — Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon and Mozilla — on what they’re doing, or not doing, to prevent abuse.
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The grand committee is made up of politicians from Canada, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, France, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore.
This week’s meeting — the second since last year’s inaugural gathering in the U.K. — is being hosted by the Canadian House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics.
“Ultimately, we’re looking for best practices and the only way we learn what other countries are doing … is if we actually have face-to-face conversations,” Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, chair of the Commons committee, said in an interview.
“Technology is something we want to see advance but I think as regulators we need to make sure it’s not going too far in terms of privacy breaches and snooping in our back yards.”
Zimmer said the time for self-regulation by social media platforms is over.
“That’s where I wish they would go and just do a better job themselves and we wouldn’t have to step in. But it’s clear that we just can’t do that anymore. They’re not taking Canadians or citizens’ privacy seriously enough.”
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Liberal MPs on Zimmer’s committee have expressed concern that tech giants have become so big, rich and powerful that they can afford to ignore laws set by small jurisdictions like Canada. The objective of the grand committee is to recommend standards that will be adopted by enough countries to make it impossible for the tech giants to ignore.
The United States, where concern about censoring free expression tends to trump concerns about privacy, fake news and electoral mischief, is notably not taking part. But Zimmer said that doesn’t limit the potential power of the international grand committee (IGC).
“We still collectively as the IGC represent about 450 million people as it is, which is bigger than the American population. So, I think we can do things on our own. We’re not going to be bound by what the U.S. says to do or not to do.”
Zimmer said he too is concerned about potential censorship but he thinks there are some “really easy” ways to regulate social media without infringing free speech. For instance, he said platforms could be required to ban anonymous accounts and to identify and verify the real names and locations of all users.
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Weeding out fake news or deliberate disinformation is more problematic but Zimmer said identifying the source of such content would go some way towards at least managing the problem.
The grand committee is the brain child of Zimmer, his Liberal vice-chair, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, and two U.K. MPs, who wanted a way to work together in the wake of last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. The political consultancy firm is alleged to have improperly gained access to the personal data of some 87 million Facebook users, for use in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and Britain’s Brexit referendum.
The presidential election also shone a spotlight on the use of social media by foreign and domestic bad actors to spread disinformation, exacerbate societal divisions and impact the election outcome.
Zimmer’s committee has subpoenaed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg to appear at this week’s grand committee meeting. Neither is expected to show up, in which case Zimmer’s committee is poised to ask the House of Commons to declare the duo in contempt of Parliament.
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Federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien last month concluded that Facebook violated Canadian privacy laws by failing to ensure Cambridge Analytica got clear consent to use individuals’ personal information. He is going to court to force Facebook to comply with privacy laws.
Facebook maintains Canadians were not affected by the scandal and that it has since made “dramatic improvements” to protect users’ privacy.