Canada is not exempt from the forces that led to the attack at the U.S. Capitol building earlier this month or the role that social media played in the lead up to the riot, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault warned a parliamentary committee Friday.
“Many of us would condemn the fact that social platforms were instrumental over the past few years in this escalation that led to what we saw on January 6,” said Guilbeault, highlighting the importance of not undermining public institutions.
“We would condemn those media platforms for sowing doubt in the population in regards to public institutions in our neighbours [to the] south and I hope that no one is under this false impression that we’re somehow shielded from that in Canada and that what we saw there couldn’t happen here.”
Guilbeault was asked to testify before the House of Commons heritage committee on the relationship between the government and Facebook following a news report last fall that suggested it was too cosy.
However, much of the hearing centred on the government’s plans for new legislation to reduce harmful material on social media platforms and on plans to help cash-strapped news media.
Guilbeault said he will table legislation in coming weeks to create a new government regulator with the power to monitor social media platforms and levy fines on social media companies that allow things like hate speech to remain on their platforms.
Protecting freedom of expression a concern
Among the areas where the government plans to regulate content are hate speech, child pornography, sharing non-consensual sexual images, terrorism and incitement to violence.
“Like everyone, we’re preoccupied with the question of the protection of freedom of expression, but just as in the physical world we have marked out freedom of expression over the years through our laws, through court judgments,” Guilbeault said.
“So we’re trying to see how to reproduce the same framework that exists in the physical world in the virtual world.”
One challenge is the fact that very few countries have adopted laws to control what happens on social media, he said, mentioning he has consulted Australia’s eSafety commissioner about their experience regulating online activity.
Guilbeault said Canadians are increasingly concerned about the question of online hate and “a very strong proportion” of Canadians want the government to intervene.
He said he’s also heard calls for more regulation from Facebook and other online platforms.
“I think it is perhaps time to share the heat that comes from all the pressure that those companies have right now with everything that’s happening,” Guilbeault said.
“Currently, that heat is essentially on the platforms while the more governments intervene, the more we’re going to share the heat.”
Facebook in favour of regulation
Kevin Chan, global director and head of public policy for Facebook Canada, told the committee the tech giant is in favour of regulation to set baseline standards and require social media companies to build systems to remove content that contravenes those standards.
“The status quo of having private companies decide what is and isn’t acceptable speech online is not sustainable longer term and lacks transparency and accountability,” Chan told MPs.
Chan sought to reassure MPs that Facebook is serious about policing what is posted on its platform, saying the company employs 35,000 people to moderate content and has invested in systems to detect things like child porn and hate speech.
However, Chan’s reassurances did not convince groups like the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, which tweeted a running commentary throughout the hearing.
“From the frontlines — we can tell you that the process is slow and arbitrary and hate speech, harassment and threats are rarely removed when user-reported,” the group wrote.
“If this process is supposed to allow for nuance and interpretation like Facebook suggests — it’s not working.”