MPs want big tech held responsible for misinformation spread online by foreign actors

MPs want big tech held responsible for misinformation spread online by foreign actors
Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics vice-chair Bloc Québécois MP Rene Villemure speaks during a news conference about the committee's report on foreign interference, Tuesday, October 24, 2023 in Ottawa.

A parliamentary committee is calling on Canada to hold tech giants accountable for publishing false or misleading information online, especially when it is spread by foreign actors.

That was among 22 recommendations the House ethics committee made after its study into foreign interference attempts by China and Russia. The study spanned 10 months of work and included eight public meetings where MPs heard from 23 witnesses.

Bloc Québécois MP and committee vice-chair René Villemure said Canada needs to take a firm position on this issue, similar to the European Union, which has a digital misinformation law that curbs hate speech and propaganda online.

“We’ll have to have boxing gloves,” Villemure said Tuesday after the committee’s report was released.

The government has 60 days to respond, but Liberal MP and committee vice-chair Mona Fortier said it’s a recommendation her party put a lot of effort into.

“At some point companies will have to understand that they’re actors and they’re not the government,” Villemure said.

“What happens online is basically shaping society, and if we’re not acting in a decisive manner, they will shape society to the bottom.”

Villemure said it’s not up to the committee to determine how to hold big tech companies accountable, but he pointed to the European Union as an example.

The European Commission, the 27-nation bloc’s executive branch, has recently put its new digital law to the test as it relates to the Israel-Hamas war. Photos and videos of the carnage have flooded social media alongside posts from users pushing false claims and misrepresenting videos from other events.

The commission has asked Meta and TikTok to explain the measures they have taken to reduce the risk of spreading and amplifying terrorist and violent content, hate speech and disinformation. Under the law, the companies could face billions of dollars in fines if they do not do enough to protect users.

The federal Conservatives have opposed the committee’s recommendation, saying it would endorse censorship online.

“We are also concerned that this may stifle the right of the press to freely report on matters which the government of the day may choose to label as disinformation in need of regulation or censorship,” the Tories wrote in a dissenting report.

“Conservatives believe that efforts should instead be focused directly on targeting disinformation sponsored by hostile foreign states, in a manner that does not abridge free expression or freedom of the press.”

Conservative MP and committee chair John Brassard was not at Tuesday’s press conference.

The Tories didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Villemure said the recommendation is about holding tech companies such as Meta and Google accountable, and has nothing to do with freedom or expression. Meta and Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment but both companies have policies that address misinformation.

Fortier expressed disappointment that the Tories released a dissenting report, saying she thought everyone was on the same page when it came to online platforms.

In its report, the committee said it began looking into foreign interference when the issue was receiving increased media attention and parliamentary scrutiny, especially in light of allegations relating to the financing of candidates in the 2019 federal election by China.

Because two other committees were also studying foreign interference, the ethics committee focused on the impact of foreign interference allegations in Canada and on Canadian communities.

The 22 recommendations include legislative proposals and the creation of a foreign agent registry, which Fortier said is the “will of the government.”

The report also calls on the government to improve access to declassified information and to direct the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to share relevant information to the public.

Other recommendations include strengthening penalties and rules around national security intelligence leaks, allowing CSIS to directly warn MPs when there’s a threat related to foreign interference and updating policy to include foreign interference threats using artificial intelligence.

The committee also wants more training for parliamentarians and public servants around foreign interference, and to strengthen reporting mechanisms for people being intimidated by foreign entities. It proposed a change to the Criminal Code to create penalties that cover all foreign interference operations, including harassment and intimidation by a foreign state.

Conservatives proposed one recommendation in their dissenting report: to have the government undertake a forensic audit of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

The committee released a case study looking into allegations of foreign interference through a donation to the foundation. But in light of the evidence, the committee said it cannot take a definitive position on the case.

“We devoted lots of time to the Trudeau Foundation. The time was put together in order to find out what happened,” Villemure said.

“But we did not agree on more than what was written.”

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press. 

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