Cross Country Checkup

Social media regulation will fall to winning government after election, says Democratic Institutions minister

Speaking to Cross Country Checkup, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould says that a recently introduced declaration on electoral integrity — which promises co-operation between Silicon Valley companies and the government — is adequate.

MP Karina Gould says new declaration provides for co-operation between Ottawa, Silicon Valley

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould tells Duncan McCue that Canadians will determine whether social media companies are doing enough to curb disinformation in the coming election. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Social media platforms could be regulated after October's federal election, said Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould — but it'll be up to the winning government to take action.

Speaking with Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue on Friday, Gould said that a recently introduced declaration on electoral integrity, which promises co-operation between Silicon Valley companies and the government, is currently adequate.

Facebook and Microsoft have signed onto the declaration, while Google issued a statement saying it supports the government's efforts. Twitter has yet to respond.

Despite Facebook's commitment, however, founder Mark Zuckerberg and company COO Sheryl Sandberg ignored a subpoena to appear in front of the House of Commons ethics and privacy commission this week.

Representatives from several tech companies responded to questions about big data, privacy and democracy from politicians in various countries  — including the U.K., Ireland and Germany — this week at an international forum in Ottawa.

Here is part of Gould's conversation. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg snubbed Parliament this week. What did you make of that?

I think it's quite disappointing. I think that this was a real opportunity for all of the platforms to address some of the really tangible issues that Canadians, and actually citizens around the world, are grappling with and are concerned about.

The international grand committee is really unprecedented. I mean, you had parliamentarians from 14 different countries, cross-party, all talking about the same thing and so, you know, I do think it's really disappointing that they decided not to come.

An empty chair sits behind the name tags for Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg as the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy waits to begin in Ottawa on May 28, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

They were facing a subpoena from Parliament. Are they going to face any consequences for ignoring it?

They would have to be found, I believe, in contempt of Parliament and I don't think that that's what Parliament has decided as of yet.

But I think part of the consequences are public trust, and Canadians and citizens around the world are rightly questioning why they're not showing the respect for our democratic institutions that they should be.

On Monday you unveiled the Declaration on Electoral Integrity and I gather that the idea is to try to get the social media platforms to voluntarily commit to fighting disinformation — so getting rid of phoney accounts and fake news, that kind of thing. Does this declaration go far enough?

What I think is really important about this declaration is that it establishes the expectations that we as the government have with regards to how social media platforms conduct themselves in the lead up to and during our elections.

It establishes, you know, a set of standards and a set of commitments that, in fact, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have all agreed to comply with, and Canadians will hold them to account for that.

And I think that's part of it. They have agreed to take down fake accounts and inauthentic content, to remove malicious bots and to inform Canadians as to why they're seeing certain content.

If Canadians are not satisfied with how they respond to this declaration and to the commitments that they've made, then following the next election, whoever is in government will likely have to regulate.

Is it enough though to be asking them to step up at this point? Shouldn't Canada be considering investigative powers or fines when privacy is violated, as some of the European countries are right now?

We are considering all of those options and, in fact, the digital charter that my colleague Minister [Navdeep] Bains announced a couple of weeks ago ... sets out the guiding principles that will inform us as we move toward stronger regulation of these platforms.

He also released a white paper that lists strengthening the privacy commissioner and where potential aspects of regulation need to be strengthened within Canadian law.

So this work is actually underway and ongoing and the government is certainly leading on this, not just here in Canada but also around the world. And we're also working with [international] counterparts.

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Samantha Lui