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Social media companies should face new legal duty to 'act responsibly,' expert panel finds

Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has himself recently indicated that legislation to address “online hate” will be introduced “very soon.”
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook Communities Summit 2019. Facebook photo

Social media companies can’t be trusted to moderate themselves, so it falls to the government to enforce new restrictions to protect Canadians from harmful content online, according to a report currently under review by the federal heritage minister.

The Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression, an expert panel of seven members, including former chief justice Beverley McLachlin, said it had become difficult to ignore the fact too many real-world manifestations of online interactions are turning violent, destructive or hateful, despite social media’s parallel role in empowering positive social movements.

The panellists were particularly struck by the role they saw social media play last fall in “sowing distrust” in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, culminating in the lethal invasion of the U.S. Capitol. And they found, with the Quebec mosque shooting, the Toronto van attack and the armed invasion of Rideau Hall, that “Canada is not immune.”

“We recognize the charter, we recognize the ability of people to express themselves freely,” said Jean La Rose, former chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) and one of the seven commissioners, in an interview.

“But there must be limits at one point. There has to be limits as to where free speech becomes a racist discourse, or a hurtful discourse, or a hateful discourse.”

'We have been at the receiving end of racist threats'

These limits would come in the form of a new law passed by Parliament, the commission recommended, that would force social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, search engines like Google and its video-sharing site YouTube and others to adhere to a new “duty to act responsibly.”

The panel purposefully did not spell out what responsible behaviour should look like. Instead, it said this determination should be left to the government — as well as a new regulator that would oversee a code of conduct for the industry and a new “social media council” that would bring together the platforms with civil society and other groups.

La Rose said his experience in the journalism world demonstrated how there needed to be reasonable limits on what people can freely express so they are not permitted to call for the killings of Muslims, for example, or encourage violence against an individual by posting their home address or other personal details online.

“Having worked in media, having worked at APTN, for example, we have been at the receiving end of racist threats, of severe injury to our people, our reporters and others because of the view we present of the situation of the Indigenous community in Canada,” he said.

“Literally, we’ve had some reporters run off the road when they were covering a story because people were trying to block the telling of that story. So as a news entity, we have seen how far sometimes misinformation, hate and hurtful comments can go.”

Rules must reflect issue's 'inherent complexity': Google

Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has himself recently indicated that legislation to address “online hate” will be introduced “very soon.”

The minister has pointed to the popularity of such a move: a recent survey by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF), for example, found that fully four-fifths of Canadians are on board with forcing social media companies to rapidly take down hateful content.

“Canadians are now asking their government to hold social media companies accountable for the content that appears on their platforms,” Guilbeault said after the CRRF survey was published.

“This is exactly what we intend to do, by introducing new regulations that will require online platforms to remove illegal and hateful content before they cause more harm and damage.”

Guilbeault has met with the commission to discuss their recommendations and is currently reviewing their report, press secretary Camille Gagné-Raynauld confirmed.

Representatives from Facebook Canada and Twitter Canada were among several people who provided witness testimony and participated in commission deliberations, the report said. Twitter declined comment to Canada’s National Observer.

“We haven’t reviewed the full report yet, so we can’t comment on the specific recommendations,” said Kevin Chan, global director and head of public policy for Facebook Canada. “We have community standards that govern what is and isn’t allowed on our platform, and in most cases those standards go well beyond what’s required by law.”

Chan also said Facebook agreed regulators should make “clear rules for the internet” so private companies aren’t left to make decisions themselves.

Google spokesperson Lauren Skelly said the company shares Canadians’ concerns about harmful content online and said YouTube takes its responsibility to remove content that violates its policies “extremely seriously.” She said the company has significantly ramped up daily removals of hate speech and removed millions of videos last quarter for violations.

“Any regulation needs to reflect the inherent complexity of the issue and the scale at which online platforms operate,” said Skelly. “We look forward to continuing our work with the government and local partners on addressing the spread of online hate to ensure a safer and open internet that works for all Canadians.”

Incentives 'not aligned with the public interest': Jaffer

The nine-month study by the commission, an initiative led by the Public Policy Forum, found that with everything from disinformation campaigns to conspiracy theories, hate speech and people targeted for harm, toxic content was being “amplified” by the actions of social media companies.

The study rejected the notion that social media platforms are “neutral disseminators of information,” finding instead that they curate content to serve their own commercial interests.

“The business model of some of the major social media companies involves keeping people engaged with their platforms as much as possible. And it turns out that keeping people engaged means feeding them sensational content because that’s what keeps people clicking,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and another commissioner.

“The incentives for social media companies are not aligned with the public interest. These are private companies whose obligation is to make money for their shareholders.”

The commission also proposed a tribunal to deal with dispute resolutions quickly, as well as a “transparency regime” that would require social media companies to make certain information available to the regulator, including the “algorithmic architecture used to identify problematic content.”

Jaffer wrote a “concurring statement” in the report, where he confessed it was difficult to endorse the commission’s proposed “duty to act responsibly” without going further to define how that duty will work in reality. He said defining it will require “difficult tradeoffs” between free speech, privacy and other issues.

Carl Meyer / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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