Ottawa plans digital charter with hefty fines to fight misinformation, violent speech online

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a meeting of world leaders and technology companies in Paris on Thursday that the federal government will release a digital charter laying out how Canada plans to tackle issues such as hate speech, misinformation and election interference on the internet.

Canada said it plans to introduce regulations for online platforms that will include financial penalties for the spread of misinformation, a day after signing a global pact to address violent speech on the internet.

But counterintelligence experts warned that Canada is likely too small to exert major influence over tech behemoths and that the United States’ refusal to join the international accord could hamper global efforts to address issues such as election interference online.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a meeting of world leaders and technology companies in Paris on Thursday that the federal government will release a digital charter laying out how Canada plans to tackle issues such as hate speech, misinformation and election interference on the internet.

The document would serve as a guide for future regulations for online activity and include “meaningful financial consequences” for tech firms ahead of the federal election in October. Canada’s national cybersecurity agency warned in April that it was “very likely” that foreign adversaries would try to influence the election online.

“What we’re seeing now, is a digital sphere that’s turned into the wild west, and it’s because we, as governments and as industry leaders, haven’t made it enough of a real priority,” Mr. Trudeau said. “But we have to pay attention to what’s happening. The very character of our countries is on the line.”

The announcement comes a day after the world’s largest social-media companies joined Canada and 17 other countries to support the Christchurch Call to Action. The voluntary agreement is in response to the March 15 attack by a gunman who used Facebook to livestream attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 51 people.

But a senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization official who specializes in how Russia and other actors use social media to sow discord around the world said that Canada and other similarly sized countries are limited in their ability to compel tech giants to change by acting alone.​

Janis Sarts, the director of NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga, Latvia, said either the U.S. or European Union need to step in for change to be effective.

“Individual countries can do some, but frankly, from my perspective, I would be kind of cautious of the overall effect of that kind of regulation just in in one country,” she told The Globe and Mail on Thursday during a meeting of NATO officials in Ottawa to discuss the centre’s work in detecting foreign political interference campaigns.

The federal government has long threatened tougher rules for tech giants, but has struggled to get Silicon Valley companies on board with existing measures.

Google opted to ban political advertising during the coming federal election rather than comply with new ad-transparency rules. Facebook objected to an investigation by federal and B.C. privacy commissioners that found the social-media giant broke Canada’s privacy laws, prompting federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien to sue Facebook and request greater enforcement powers from Parliament.

The emerging consensus among countries such as Canada also lacks the backing of the United States, where most major tech firms are headquartered and where efforts to regulate online platforms have been hampered by a widening partisan split.

The United States said this week that it would not support the Christchurch Call to Action. The White House instead launched a website on Wednesday for people to report evidence of political bias by tech firms.

“Social media platforms should advance freedom of speech,” the website said. “Yet too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ of user policies.”

Several Democratic presidential candidates have called for the breakup of large technology companies.

The actions of the United States are “a big signal that it is potentially considering different forms of regulation, or even potentially other types of social pressure,” said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University.

Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains told reporters in Paris on Wednesday that having more than a dozen countries back an agreement to tackle online extremism could help bring the United States to the table.

”We are working with like-minded nations and clearly this will put pressure on other countries, including the U.S., to acknowledge that this is a real issue and that we need to address it in a meaningful way,” he said.

Smaller countries like Canada struggle to police U.S. tech giants over fears the companies will shut down services that are too costly to police. Any co-ordinated global effort will likely run up against competing visions of how to regulate online speech and how aggressively to penalize U.S. companies.

“Individually all of the different countries have been really struggling with this idea of what enforcement means around U.S. companies that are operating within their country,” said Robyn Caplan, a research affiliate with the Data & Society Research Institute in New York.

“And then doing that on a broader scale, where you have countries that are still signing up who may have different standards for speech, that is a much more difficult question that’s going to take months, if not years.”

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