Special Report

House ethics committee makes 26 recommendations on regulating Big Tech

Kevin Chan, Global Director and Head of Public Policy, Facebook Canada, appears before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in Ottawa. On Thursday, April 19, 2018. House of Commons

While all eyes were on Capitol Hill for Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s testimony in front of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, a group of Canadian elected officials were suggesting major changes to the way this country regulates Big Tech.

In Canada, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics issued the result of its nine-month investigation into the Cambridge Analytica scandal this morning, involving the misuse of Facebook user data to sway the United States’ 2016 presidential election.

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The report made 26 recommendations. Three key ones are outlined below:

1Add data to antitrust reviews

The committee calls for updating legislation allowing the Competition Bureau to look into megadeals taking “non-price effects, such as data-driven mergers, into account.” However, a February Competition Bureau report concluded there’s “little evidence” that the emergence of data requires “a new approach to competition policy.”

NDP MP Charlie Angus expressed concern about “the kill zone of innovation that’s happening from large data-opolies that are coming out of Silicon Valley.” Technology giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon have economic power because of the amount of data they hold, and that’s stifling startups, he said.

At the International Grand Committee on Disinformation in the United Kingdom in November, Facebook representative Richard Allan said that unless elected officials planned “to turn off the internet, I’m not sure people would be better off in doing without Facebook.” He was responding to Angus’s suggestion that the company be broken up.

President Donald Trump has said his administration is considering antitrust investigations of tech giants.

Talking Point

The committee recommends the Competition Bureau expand its antitrust criteria; it also suggests a regulator be tasked to oversee the auditing of algorithms and that social media platforms be held responsible for content moderation. The committee’s recommendations are the result of a nine-month investigation into the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The government has 120 days to provide a response, though it doesn’t have to do what the committee says.

2. Audit algorithms

The committee wants to give an existing or newly-created regulator the power to test the math of software that makes decisions about what content to display automatically.

Elizabeth Dubois, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, suggested regular audits of algorithms and a requirement to document their development in order to figure out “what it was supposed to do, and why and how.”

However, a USMCA clause states governments can’t demand to see software source code or algorithms. There’s an exception for a “specific investigation” by a regulatory body, but that’s not likely to cover “regular audits.”

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said any USMCA limitations would likely be reflected in the government response to the committee report. But he noted that the European Union’s new data regulations include “a principle of algorithmic explainability and transparency” and measures of accountability as to “how companies are applying algorithms and processing data. And that’s exactly what we’re calling for.”

In 2015, the Chinese government imposed new regulations requiring companies to disclose their source code, as well as build “back doors” into hardware and software.

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3. Moderating content

The committee would like to enact legislation “imposing a duty” on online platforms to remove “manifestly illegal content” like hate speech, harassment or disinformation “in a timely fashion.” Not doing so would result in fines pegged to the company’s size. It also said it “is worth considering” Concordia University professor Fenwick McKelvey’s suggestion of a National Social Media Council, akin to a broadcasting standards council, to handle questions of content moderation.

The idea comes from a November report for the Public Policy Forum that McKelvey wrote with Heidi Tworek and Chris Tenove, an assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow respectively at the University of British Columbia. “If you look at how we’ve dealt with broadcasting issues, there’s very similar questions about ethics, codes of conduct, [and] representation of women,” McKelvey told The Logic. He cited Facebook’s announcement of an independent content moderation appeals group as evidence that social media platforms are acknowledging the need for outside oversight.

The researchers’ proposed council would be a forum for platforms to discuss key issues, “develop best practices [and] standards” and “provide an appeals process for citizens.” McKelvey proposes it be made part of  the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. It would make Canada, which “hasn’t done too much about website liability,” a global leader on content moderation questions, McKelvey said.

Facebook has insisted for years—most recently at CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before the U.S. Congress—that it’s just a technology company, not a media company. That exempts it from advertising regulations.

The USMCA says that though tech companies can’t be made responsible for the content created on their platforms, countries can still enforce criminal law. In Germany, companies have 24 hours to remove “obviously illegal” posts or face fines of up to $75 million.

Also in the report: A repeat of earlier calls for Canadian political parties to be subject to privacy rules and to give the federal privacy commissioner the power to compel evidence and issue fines. A call for research and public awareness campaigns on disinformation.

What’s next: Bill C-76, the Liberals’ electoral reform bill, passed in the Senate yesterday. It contains some new political advertising rules, but notably doesn’t bring parties under privacy rules. The government has 120 days to provide a response to the committee’s report, but it doesn’t have to do what the committee says.

Further meetings or communication between the members of the international grand committee is also likely. Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, chair of the ethics committee, said the multinational group has been “very effective in getting the word out” about these issues, and the Canadian elected officials want to continue working with it. “Canada is not big enough to do this on our own,” Angus said.