Greens pledge to regulate tech giants to ensure only ‘verifiable identities’ on platforms

The Green Party has committed to regulating tech giants on social media, but some experts caution against the plan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Richard Drew

The Green Party of Canada says it would introduce rules forcing social media giants to crack down on anonymous users and accounts if it forms government after the 2019 federal election.

In its election platform released on Monday — the first (non-costed) platform to come out in the campaign — the party pledged to “regulate Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to ensure that only actual people, with verifiable identities, are able to publish on those platforms.”

“Those who spam, spread misinformation with the intent to manipulate public thinking or threaten and harass others should be held accountable for their actions, and we should do more to protect underage minors from adult content online than require them to check a box saying that they are of age,” the Green Party said in a statement to Global News.

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Asked how, exactly, it would regulate social media companies in this way, the party said: “People should have some right to protect their identities online and to remain anonymous across the public spaces of the social web. But there still needs to be accountability so this would require some form of secure digital identity to be implemented.”

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Is it possible for a government to enact this type of regulation, and would it actually address the problems the Greens have referenced? Global News asked three experts.

‘The details of a plan like that would matter a lot’

All three experts interviewed by Global News agreed that a government could technically enact regulation forcing tech companies to screen their users for verifiable identities, but they questioned whether that would be the correct or most effective approach to addressing the problems the Greens referenced.

For starters, the idea of “quasi-licensing” social media users is a proposed solution to an early discussion in the Canadian context, according to Michael Geist and Elizabeth Dubois, two professors at the University of Ottawa.

“I’m not sure we’re there yet,” said Geist, a law professor and Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law. “I think we’re starting to see the platforms take more aggressive approaches in terms of seeking to enforce some of their terms.

“I think there’s a consensus that more needs to be done but I’m not sure the mandated collection of identities by these large platforms is needed or is the right solution.”

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That kind of regulation would also come with a number of risks, according to Geist and Dubois, who is an assistant professor with the University of Ottawa’s communication department. It might hurt individuals “in marginalized positions in our society,” including people who have been subjected to harassment both on- and offline, Dubois argued.

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The verifiable identity idea is something that is commonly used to talk about how we deal with things like hate speech or spreading of disinformation. But it’s one that does not have as clear a link to improving privacy of individuals,” she said, adding that some people, perhaps legitimately, don’t want to share personal information with multinational companies “where there is a history of data breaches and hacking.”

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If a government chose to enforce verifiable identities among social media users in some way, Dubois argued: “The details of a plan like that would matter a lot.”

“In particular, it makes a substantial difference who would be responsible for collecting and ensuring the security of identification information and whether or not pseudonyms would be permissible under such a framework,” she said.

Geist added whistleblowers to the list of those who benefit from anonymity online, arguing there are circumstances “where anonymous accounts serve real value.”

Legislating an outright ban on anonymous behaviour or accounts on social media platforms would be particularly risky and “would likely face a legal challenge” by civil liberties groups, Geist said.

“There have been certainly some arguments around a right to anonymity within the law,” Geist said.

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Brett Caraway, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, cast doubt on whether regulation like what the Greens are proposing would even be effective.

The only thing that Canada could do is regulate within its own jurisdiction,” Caraway said. “And a significant number of fake accounts are, of course, coming from outside of Canada.”

‘It’s good to see these issues becoming part of the campaign’

Caraway said that current privacy legislation in Canada is more focused on limiting what private organizations can do with the user information it collects, adding that the Greens’ proposal is almost a swing “in the opposite direction.”

“It tells them what [private companies] have to collect, which is interesting to me. It’s kind of antithetical to the original spirit of the internet, if there was one,” Caraway said.
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Geist noted “there is a certain amount of irony” in the proposal, given citizens and governments are currently seized with and scrutinizing the extent of the personal information that major tech companies are collecting, as well how they’re using it and how well they’re protecting it.

Still, “it’s good to see these issues becoming part of the campaign,” Geist added.

Regulating the internet is a hot issue right now,” he said.

“There’s no doubt these are really important issues that … merit debate and, in some instances, will merit real regulation.”

Global News reached out to the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party to ask how they would tackle the issue, respectively.

In a statement, the NDP called the Green Party’s pledge “irresponsible” and argued it would “punish users instead of actually tackling the problem.”

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“We’re committed to protecting Canadians’ privacy, fair competition in the digital market and tackling hate speech and disinformation online,” the statement read. “We would act on the all-party recommendations of the parliamentary ethics committee and create serious regulations and strict requirements for the big platforms to crack down on hate speech and disinformation and better protect privacy while opening the door to competition by allowing for users to take their data with them between competing platforms and other measures.”

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For their part, the Liberals didn’t specify exactly what the party would do if it formed government again.

“We take cyber threats to our democracy very seriously, including fake or anonymous social media accounts used to interfere with our democratic institutions. That’s why we’ve put in place a plan to prepare and respond to the threat and have ensured the government of Canada mobilizes government-wide expertise to anticipate, recognize and respond to these threats,” the statement said.

“Canadians expect social media platforms to address issues like cybersecurity and the spread of disinformation by demonstrating greater transparency — and a re-elected Liberal government will continue to hold them to account.”

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This spring, the Liberal government asked tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google to sign a declaration promising a dozen initiatives to protect the integrity of the Canadian election this fall. One of those initiatives was removing fake social media accounts.

On May 27, Karina Gould — then minister of democratic institutions — said regulation would inevitably come if tech giants didn’t follow through on the commitments in the declaration.

Global News asked the Liberal Party whether that would still be its intention but didn’t receive a response by deadline.

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Global News will update this article if it hears back from the Conservative Party.

— With files from the Canadian Press

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