Canada needs to regulate social media giants: international report

OTTAWA — An international report says Canada has taken "commendable" steps to safeguard this fall's federal election from foreign interference.

But the report says this country needs to do more to regulate social media giants and should impose "major sanctions" on those that fail to control fake news and other forms of disinformation on their platforms.

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The report is part of a series of assessments conducted by the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Transatlantic Commission on Elections Integrity for the Alliance of Democracies Federation.

The bipartisan groups have been conducting similar studies in the run-up to elections in other countries, including the 2020 presidential campaign in the United States, amid mounting evidence of foreign interference in recent elections in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

The report notes that Canada has imposed sanctions on Russia, infuriated Saudi Arabia by criticizing its human rights record and is in the midst of a diplomatic war with China over the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on an extradition request from the U.S.

Given those disputes and the fact that Canada is a member of NATO and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, the report suggests it's likely that foreign adversaries may seek to interfere in the coming election to further their own interests, damage Canada's reputation or undermine democracy.

"The most pervasive concern in the 2019 Canadian federal election will likely be disinformation campaigns that undermine social cohesion by amplifying extremist narratives and discrediting leaders," the report says.

It notes that there is already evidence linking Russia, Iran and Venezuela to Twitter accounts used to amplify extremist views on contentious issues, such as pipelines and immigration.

The report lauds the Trudeau government for taking steps to guard against foreign interference, including prohibiting advocacy groups from using foreign money to fund election-related campaigns and requiring social media companies to keep a public registry of all online political ads posted on their platforms. The government has also beefed up election laws related to unauthorized use of computers and given the commissioner of elections stronger powers to investigate suspected violations and to enforce the law.

Moreover, the government has created a new task force involving the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP, the Communications Security Establishment and Global Affairs, to identify and counter attempts to interfere in the election. And it has set up a "critical election incident public protocol," under which a panel of five senior public servants will decide whether to warn the public in the midst of the campaign if there is a particularly egregious instance of interference that threatens the integrity of the election.

The report suggests Canada's threshold for going public may be too high.

"The time has come for democracies under attack to call out their aggressors by name. There seems little need and no advantage to remain discreetly silent if an intelligence service has reliable information about which foreign country is the source of the interference."

The report says the steps taken by the government are "positive and commendable" but more needs to be done. In particular, it says it's time to impose regulations on social media giants rather than expect them to voluntarily take steps to control disinformation on their platforms.

"Where it is determined that the platforms have allowed themselves to be used by a malign foreign actor or have permitted abuses they could have caught or controlled, they should face very stiff penalties," the report says.

Fines should be high enough "to capture the attention of even those cash-rich corporations" and non-monetary penalties should entail "business consequences of sufficient gravity that they will constitute a real deterrence and effective denunciation of the misconduct." Penalties could even include fines and possible jail time for executives of companies that don't comply, the report adds.

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