Minister tasked with safeguarding election calls on committee to look at regulating Facebook, Twitter

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould today called on a Commons committee to look at the possibility of the Canadian government imposing new rules on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter in the lead-up to the next federal election.

Gould invites committee to study regulation or legislation in lead-up to federal election

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould is calling on a committee to look at imposing new rules on social media sites in the lead up to the next election. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould today called on a Commons committee to look at the possibility of the Canadian government imposing new rules on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter in the lead-up to the next federal election.

Testifying before the Procedure and House Affairs committee Tuesday, Gould suggested the committee take a closer look at the role of social media in elections.

"I would encourage this committee to do a study of the role of social media in democracy, if that is something that you think is interesting," she said. "To hold the social media companies to account.

"I would welcome suggestions and feedback in terms of how to appropriately regulate or legislate that behaviour, because I think one of the biggest challenges — and you can see this around the world — is the path forward is not as clear."

Gould cited a public opinion poll prepared by Nanos Research for the Globe and Mail that found that six in 10 Canadians believe Facebook will have a negative impact on the next federal election. She urged MPs to put partisanship aside and work together.

"We want to ensure that we're providing that important public space that social media provides for people to express themselves, but also mitigating some of the negative impacts that can also arise through social media," she said. "And so I think that would be something very interesting for this committee to work on, if you choose to do that."

If the committee heeds Gould's call and looks at ways to rein in social media in the lead-up to the next election, it'll have to move quickly. There are only 12 sitting weeks remaining in Parliament's calendar before it rises for the summer and it may not resume sitting before the next election.

Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie says the government isn't doing enough to stop foreign interference in the next election campaign. (@StephanieKusie/Twitter)

Gould's comments came after Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie accused her of not doing enough to protect the next election. She said she was concerned that Gould has simply asked social media companies to do more to keep the next Canadian election safe from foreign interference and to apply lessons learned from other countries.

"This is very disturbing to me that you are asking corporations out of their own good will to try to protect Canadians and our electoral processes again, rather than taking responsibility yourself, both as the minister and the government," said Kusie.

Kusie described the elections law C-76 as "weak," saying it relied on "lame registries" and wrist-slaps to guard against foreign interference.

Gould's committee appearance comes less than a month after the government unveiled plans to deal with the threat of foreign interference in Canadian politics, both before and during the coming election campaign. It also came a day after a U.K. committee of MPs issued a highly critical report on online political disinformation; it recommended that social media and tech companies like Facebook be regulated.

A survey conducted by the Strategic Council for the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) released Tuesday found that 70 per cent of respondents were worried that fake news could affect the outcome of the next federal election, while 57 per cent said they had been taken in by a fake news item in the past.

Gould told the committee she has had conversations with both Facebook and Twitter on the topic. She is scheduled to meet with Microsoft this week and wants to meet with Google in the coming weeks as well.

"I think that Canadians are rightly concerned and I think that they are rightly feeling uneasy about the role of social media in our upcoming election," she said. "It's going to play an even bigger role than it did in 2015.

"I think that while there have been some positive steps taken by the platforms to deal with fake accounts, inauthentic behaviour, particularly from foreign sources, I think that there is still a lot more that can and should be done."

Gould said all the major platforms have signed on to a code of practice for the EU parliamentary elections in May.

"We're watching that very closely and trying to determine if that is something that would be both effective and worthwhile to take here."

Gould said she wants to be certain that social media companies are acting in good faith.

"I think one of the biggest challenges with regards to social media companies is precisely that accountability factor in that, at the moment, they are saying, 'Just trust us, we're doing things,'" she said.

"And we don't necessarily have the mechanism to ensure that they are, apart from the items that were passed in C-76 with regards to ad transparency and not knowingly accepting foreign funding on their platforms for political advertisements."

NDP MP Charlie Angus pointed out that the Commons ethics committee already has been looking into the "potential threat posed by abuse of the Facebook platform."

"The committee has been clear that political parties must also be held to a set of standards for privacy protections. This government is ignoring these clear calls for accountability."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

About the Author

Elizabeth Thompson

Senior Reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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