Public Policy Forum report warns of tech giants’ negative effects on democracy


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This morning, Public Policy Forum (PPF), a Canadian non-profit, released a report about online threats to democracy in Canada. It was prepared by Edward Greenspon, president and CEO, along with Taylor Owen, a UBC assistant professor of digital media and global affairs.

Why it matters: With the National Data Strategy Roundtable underway and the slow march to the federal election already beginning, the report is a window into the options available to policymakers concerned about digital governance and data privacy, and what could become an important election issue.

Global context: The past few months have resulted in a slew of reports and regulation looking at Big Tech’s role in our lives, including the Warner report in the U.S., the Denham report in the U.K. looking into data analytics in political campaigns, and GDPR regulations put forth in the EU.

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The PPF policy paper divides the different proposals along four lines:

  • Rebuild Informational Trust and Integrity,
  • Shore Up Canada’s Civic Infrastructure,
  • Keep Information Markets Open, Competitive and Clean,
  • Modernize Governance of Data Rights and Opportunities.

The details: The intent of the paper is to provide an overall framing for many of the challenging digital questions we’re facing today, including governance, privacy, election integrity and the erosion of journalism. Options listed in the paper run the gamut from relatively small lifts to more sweeping policy options:

  • New roles for government: The paper recommends launching a large-scale and long-term civic-literacy and critical-thinking campaign. It also proposes creating a special panel to engage the public in an examination and debate about disinformation, hate and free speech issues within the new digital sphere. Finally, it recommends the federal privacy commissioner be given new powers to hold industry, organizations and political parties responsible for their data usage.
  • New rules for platforms: The report encourages taxation on “foreign digital companies” adding sales tax on the location of the consumer not the company.
  • Individuals and their data: The report argues that individuals be given more rights over the use, mobility and monetization of their data.
  • Independent audits: PPF recommends subjecting algorithms to regular audits by independent authorities, and to make these audits publicly available.
  • Journalism: The paper reiterated calls from its earlier work encouraging policies and funding to boost the journalism ecosystem, and to have the CBC play a larger role in amplifying and facilitating great journalism instead of competing for it.

The authors acknowledge that “this report is neither a panacea nor a roadmap to a fixed destination. Nor is it the final word.”

What they’re saying: “Our digital public sphere is now largely controlled by publicly traded private monopolies whose business model, which is mainly focused on selling attention, has real negative externalities on our democracy. If that’s not a clear case for a governance conversation, then what is?” – Taylor Owen, co-author of the report in an interview with The Logic.

What critics will argue: The report’s framing provides an underlying cynicism and skepticism around online businesses that pretends there was a utopia 25 years ago relative to today, and that we need to make a course correction. There are also a lot of elements in this proposal that aren’t well explained.

The big picture: There’s a line in the report that captures the current state of anxiety circulating in Ottawa. “The natural tendencies of social media are biased toward tribalization through filter bubbles and echo chambers and the commercial efficiencies of microtargeting. These are leveraged by malevolent actors who seek to sow confusion and division.”

Talking point: The governing Liberal Party—who came to power riding the wave of these tools—is coming to the realization that opposition parties, able to micro-target attention around inflammatory issues and radical opposition, are better adept at using digital platforms to their political advantage than governing parties who have to defend their policy platforms on social media. Expect policy changes at least on the election transparency side ahead of the next federal election.