Cross Country Checkup

'They're exploiting a regulatory gap': Former RIM CEO calls for penalties on social media companies

Former Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie told Cross Country Checkup on Sunday that Canada needs strong regulation against online misinformation to protect democracy.

Jim Balsillie says the Liberals' efforts to combat misinformation 'not worth the paper they're printed on'

Jim Balsillie, founder of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, spoke with Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue on Sunday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
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Social media company executives should face stiff penalties for violating users' rights, according to former Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie.

Speaking on Sunday with Cross Country Checkup, Balsillie told host Duncan McCue that the Liberal government's recently announced plans to protect social media users — including a digital charter — don't go far enough.

"I will tell you that while corporate liability matters, when you pierce it to personal liability of directors and executives ... they just get a lot more prudent and cautious on the rules," said Balsillie, who is also the founder and chair of the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

On Friday, Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould told Checkup that it would be up to the winning government in October's federal election to regulate social media companies if necessary.

She touted her government's Declaration on Electoral Integrity, an agreement to guard against misinformation online. The declaration has been signed by Facebook and Microsoft and supported by Google, but Twitter has yet to respond.

Below is part of Balsillie's conversation with McCue.

In your view, has the Liberal government done enough to rein in digital platforms like Facebook, particularly since we've got a federal election coming up?

No, they haven't even begun. The digital charter and Canada's Declaration on Election Integrity, they're just words and they're not worth the paper they're printed on.

There's nothing of substance here: no regulation, no legislation, no standards, no strategy, no policy.

We don't need a digital charter or a declaration, we urgently need a data strategy designed to deal with the economic effects of data so that we can protect our elections and our society and prosper in the data-driven economy.

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould told McCue that her government is working with social media companies to reduce misinformation and 'inauthentic actors.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

What regulations should be in place already that aren't?

There's many things but I think I'd like to zero in on electoral [integrity] because if we lose democracy, we lose it all. And if the government is truly concerned about electoral integrity, they can start by putting political parties under privacy regulation.

Canadians don't know how political parties collect, store and profile and target voters, or where they get the information. And they also don't know the details of the relationship between Facebook and the political parties.

But we do know that Facebook has the tools — and thus the power — to manipulate voters … Elections are only free and fair when individuals have the ability to exercise the choice without manipulation. But these tools have the ability to fully manipulate us.

So you've called for a ban on targeted political ads on social media during the election. Why is that necessary?

We ban a whole lot of things during elections. We ban robocalls, we ban certain kinds of expenditures. These platforms are exceptionally powerful at changing people's behaviour.

They don't only profile you, they control you in ways that you don't understand and so the bedrock of democracy is the sovereign autonomous self.

The objective of the data-driven economy is to undermine personal autonomy. So you can't have it both ways. You either let these platforms do what they do or you protect democracy.

I think everyone's creating a false dichotomy by framing this as regulation versus free speech.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg came under fire last week when he and company COO Sheryl Sandberg snubbed a summons to testify at the International Grand Committee meetings on big data, privacy and democracy. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

I think one of the points you're saying is that there's no such thing as a free lunch ... If you could go back in time is there a business model that Facebook should have created to avoid some of the problems that they're facing today?

It's not Facebook's fault. They're exploiting a regulatory gap.

So what's happening in places like Europe, they're responding to this. They're starting to say, 'OK, you can't do these things to me without my permission.' There are certain things you can't do anti-competitively.

I don't blame the corporation for exploiting a gap in regulation. Just don't pretend they're interested in the public good. The job of governments is to regulate for the public interest.

I think the bedrock of the public interest is democracy, but I also think another job of a government is to protect our most valuable youth who are being manipulated and undermining their mental health — certain social media companies have had targeting strategies for suicidal children.

A responsible democracy and responsible governments look after our most vulnerable people and letting them fall prey to these open systems that undermine their autonomy and manipulate them is an appropriation of public good for private gain and I think it's an exceptionally bad bargain for the person.

And it's very bad bargain for Canada.

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Samantha Lui. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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