NDP MP Charlie Angus, a long-time critic of social media giant Facebook, is renewing his call for the federal government to regulate the platform in light of recent whistleblower bombshells.
In a press conference Monday, Angus (Timmins-James Bay) called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to implement a multi-faceted plan to regulate social media giants like Facebook, which also owns global social media platforms Instagram and WhatsApp.
The two priorities Angus highlights centre around the tech companies’ algorithm-driven exploitation and privacy rights. Facebook’s algorithms (used to determine what shows up on one’s newsfeed and when) operate like nicotine, said Angus — deliberately making users addicted to its platforms.
Angus also believes such regulation could not be accomplished by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). He argues that by relying on the CRTC, which oversees the country’s broadcasters, the federal government is approaching a 21st century problem with a 20th century solution.
“I’m urging the Trudeau government to make investments in looking into the effects of tools that are being used to create addiction online and the cognitive impacts,” Angus told reporters. “Because we need to have the baseline data now for what I believe will be mass class action lawsuits for the future.”
Angus supports the establishment of an Officer of Digital Rights and Technology whose exclusive responsibility would be internet regulation.
Finally, Angus called on the federal government to tax Facebook and other social media platforms.
“Given the massive powers they have over the market and over citizens, we need to know that they’re actually paying taxes properly in Canada,” Angus told reporters.
In an interview with rabble.ca ahead of his press conference, Angus described the naiveté with which lawmakers navigated the social media giant, suggesting politicians spent more time cozying up to Silicon Valley leaders rather than holding them accountable.
Angus has been in office since 2004 and has served on the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics since its inception in 2018.
In his role on the committee, Angus has grilled Facebook’s chief government advisor Kevin Chan, accusing him of lobbying for the Liberal government without registering.
“We’ve seen clearly with Facebook a very disturbing corporate culture,” Angus said.
Angus believes data oligarchies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have become in some ways even more powerful than domestic governments.
“Misuse of their platforms have caused some really horrific results,” Angus said. “So rather than letting them become more monopolistic, we need to look at breaking them up.”
The Emmy-nominated 2019 documentary The Great Hack documented the illicit harvesting of personal data unbeknownst to Facebook users that would become the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The scandal culminated in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appearing before the United States Congress.
“Should we let Facebook near banking? Absolutely not,” Angus said. “If Facebook built bridges, there’d be a lot of car deaths every year from people going over the edge.”
Social media regulation similar to environmental targets: Expert
Nearly one third of the planet’s population has a Facebook account. Billions of people, for better or worse, rely on the social media platform to stay connected to community, colleagues, and loved ones.
Ruben Zaiotti, associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University, co-authored a book documenting the struggle of International Organizations (IOs) to adapt to the digital age. Digital Diplomacy and International Organizations: Autonomy, Legitimacy, and Contestation explores social media platforms like Facebook as a major actor in international affairs.
In an interview with rabble.ca, Zaiotti drew parallels between social media regulation and environmental advocacy.
Zaiotti said as long as companies have the choice between profits and pollution, there’s little incentivization to meet emissions targets. Similarly, without regulating the use of personal data or the dissemination of misinformation, there’s little to leverage social media platforms to follow guidelines.
Zaiotti likens aspects of the Facebook regulation debate to the early days of mass media in the 20th century.
“In reality, even if something is done within the U.S., that leaves a lot of action that is taking place beyond the U.S. borders,” Zaiotti said. He noted while Facebook operates like a multi-national organization, the fact that they’re based out of the United States muddies the waters of regulation.
Zaiotti pointed to the regulatory power of the European Union as a possible route to provide a more global perspective on how to regulate social media platforms. One country’s regulation of Facebook would be unlikely to have the desired impact, Zaiotti explained.
“Imagine this scenario in which Facebook is regulated, for example, in terms of data privacy in the United States,” Zaiotti said. “But there are indirect ways in which Facebook can still collect data, maybe not on U.S. citizens but people all around the world.”
Focus on illicit data harvesting, not just misinformation: expert
Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee combatting election interference, made headlines this month for appearances on 60 Minutes and before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security.
Haugen, a whistleblower, described a series of startling decision-making from top Facebook brass to curb misinformation. She also confirmed Facebook’s knowledge of its platforms’ harms on mental health as well as eating disorders among teenage girls. Haugen described Facebook’s drive of profits over safety as a “structure of incentivization.”
Now Facebook is trying to prevent future Frances Haugens’ from coming forward. The company announced changes last week to online discussion groups for employees on Facebook Workplace. By making groups focused on platform safety and protecting the integrity of elections private, Facebook is making a concerted effort to both minimize leaks and conceal the harm perpetuated by their service.
Dr. Michael Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law. He’s also the author of the 2015 Law, Privacy, and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era.
Geist believes while misinformation is important for governments to combat through regulation, the more pressing issue is around the personal data illicitly harvested on Facebook.
“That lack of granularity around the kind of companies that we’re talking about, the different sorts of services they’re talking about, and the way that they affect different players often means that we target the symptoms of issues rather than the larger structural challenges that we might face,” Geist explained.
He believes Canadians need more transparency around algorithmic choices.
Geist questioned whether Canadian privacy laws are up to the challenge of data privacy and regulation, providing more transparency and accountability, and more enforcement on privacy violations.
“Either [the government is] viewing [Facebook] as a source of cash, or it’s seeking largely to regulate the content on the site, and I think that too is a mistake,” Geist said.
Canada has the precedent to take action on privacy regulations for social media, Geist explained, pointing to the very first Facebook investigation and findings from a Privacy Commissioner — the same investigation that Facebook requested federal courts overturn the commissioner’s findings.
Now it’s up to the Trudeau government to go back to square one, with the “dumpster fire” Angus referred to as Bills C-10 and C-11 in the trash after the federal election. With whistleblowers, academics, politicians, and most importantly — users — watching closely, it’s time to hold Facebook accountable.