By Guy Annable
Additional law enforcement powers and an independent appeal process could be part of a new regulatory regime aimed at social media companies that Ottawa is in the final stages of completing, according to Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault.
During an interview with the Star, Guilbeault also said that a new regulator will be set up to oversee the rules Ottawa is bringing in to curb the sharing of illegal content — including hate-speech, child pornography and non-consensual intimate images — on platforms like those owned by Facebook and Google.
The regulator will have auditing powers and likely will be able to “look under the hood” to observe how algorithms at the companies work, Guilbeault said, but stressed that they wouldn’t “go after proprietary information.”
“This would have to be well defined,” he said, “but it’s to understand and to be able to see whether or not the platforms are doing what they should be doing.”
Steep fines would be in place for those that are found in non-compliance of the regulations, which are expected to be introduced in February or March.
Guilbeault said the government is in the final stages of exploring an independent appeal process wherein individuals who have had their content removed on social media platforms can take it up with the regulator.
There will also be a complaint process that people can go through with the regulator.
Guilbeault also said he expects additional law enforcement measures would be put in place under the new regime. There will be a mechanism for the “off-ramping” of cases to law enforcement, he said, and “more means for law enforcement in Canada to prosecute those.”
“If you’re doing something illegal on these platforms, we will give ourselves the means to go after you,” he said.
“Law enforcement will have the ability to get information from the platforms to prosecute the individuals or groups of individuals in question.”
The implementation of an appeal process has some concerned that the government could go too far intervening into the private practices of companies and experts say adding in additional law enforcement measures for police to get information from social media companies is a complicated process.
Private companies have their own standards for removing content they deem illegal or inappropriate. A Facebook official, who spoke to the Star on the condition of anonymity, said that the idea of a government regulator having the power to hear appeals from people who take issue with that company’s policies concerns them.
It’s one thing for a government regulator to enforce its own rules around illegal content on websites — something Facebook and other tech companies have publicly welcomed — but another thing entirely for that regulator to be able to consider decisions to remove content made by a private entity, said the source.
“I think we should all pause on that,” they said.
Vivek Krishnamurthy, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said he wants more transparency from the government around its plans for a new regulator with auditing powers.
“What are the constraints on this auditing mechanism,” he said. “Are they going to audit the content? Are they going to audit the decision-making processes of the social media companies?”
Jordan Donich, a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer, said it will be tough to give law enforcement additional powers to gather information since the companies will want to protect their customers’ privacy.
“I don’t think (the companies will) compromise the vast majority of lawful users by appearing to just flagrantly provide information to the police,” he said.
Currently, tech companies do co-operate with law enforcement and have in-house teams that police illegal content as well, said Donich.
Sometimes tech companies deny law enforcement’s request for information and ask for a court order, said Donich.
This is what we want,” he said. “We want our information to be protected, because, you know, illegal or not, the police should have some check and balance on their power.”
According to recent reports and surveys, there’s broad public support for government regulation of social media companies in Canada.
The Canadian Race Relations Foundation commissioned Abacus Data to survey 2,000 randomly selected Canadians between Jan 15-18 and found that 60 per cent support the federal government doing more to prevent hate-speech and racism online. Additionally, the survey found that 80 per cent agreed the social media companies should be required to remove hate-speech and racist content within 24 hours.
It also found that 79 per cent supported expanding the law so that people can be held accountable for what they do and say online.