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Banning big tech companies the only way to get leverage, international grand committee hears

The only way to get leverage over massive technology companies is to ban them entirely, an international assembly of politicians heard on Tuesday.

“The most effective path to reform would be to shut down the platforms,” said Roger McNamee, the author of Zucked, a critical biography of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The ban wouldn’t necessarily be permanent, but just until countries could get a handle on how data is being used to predict and manipulate behaviour among users, said McNamee. That kind of activity, particularly the manipulation of behaviour, is “repugnant,” he said.

McNamee pointed to Sri Lanka, which banned social media sites in the wake of a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks, as an example. That ban lasted nine days and was an attempt to stop people from spreading misinformation, confusion and inciting violence in the days after the attacks.

McNamee’s proposal was just one of the ideas pitched at the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy held in Ottawa on Tuesday. The committee is part of a worldwide effort to bring massive companies like Google and Facebook to heel on such issues as privacy, hate speech and disinformation.

I guarantee you that sobers the mind and introduces a kind of prudence and conservatism into their behaviour

With Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s absence illustrated by an empty committee chair — a piece of Westminster theatre that also played out at the first meeting of the grand committee in the United Kingdom last fall — politicians considered the possibility of subjecting the social media magnate to personal liability for corporate decisions, a measure recommended by Research in Motion founder Jim Balsillie.

“I guarantee you that sobers the mind and introduces a kind of prudence and conservatism into their behaviour,” said Balsillie, who came to the hearing bearing an arsenal of ideas, including banning targeted advertising during the election campaign altogether.

“During elections we have a lot of things you’re not allowed to do for six or eight weeks. Just add that to the package,” said Balsillie.

The discussion about the ban comes on the heels of Google’s announcement that it can’t comply with the government’s new election advertising rules and will therefore not be running political ads in the 2019 election.

Balsillie’s proposal would effectively legislate what Google has chosen to do for technical reasons, although the company was castigated at a committee hearing about the decision.

“The one observation I would make is there are stringent expectations on commercial companies for data protection. What we’ve heard recurring from this committee and others over the years is that there should be similar obligations on parties,” said Colin McKay, Google’s head of public policy in Canada, referring to the fact that Canada’s political parties are not subject to any privacy rules. One of Balsillie’s six proposals was to bring political parties under some kind of privacy regime.

Balsillie said that if the big tech companies pull out of various jurisdictions due to regulation, as Google has done on election advertising, “that’s the best news possible.”

Politicians who use the platforms to reach out to voters were split on the issue.

“Personally I don’t have a problem if it’s banned on these platforms,” said New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus, who is vice-chair of the privacy committee. Angus warned that any rules would have to extend to third-party groups, like Ontario Proud, a conservative Facebook page that has nearly half a million subscribers.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who is also a vice-chair of the House privacy committee, said broad, issue-based targeting for political parties can be a good thing.

“If I know you care about climate change and I want you to know about my climate-change policy, then a targeted ad seems useful and important,” said Erskine-Smith.

The privacy committee had argued for even more transparency around political advertising that would allow people to see how the targeting mechanisms work, and Erskine-Smith said that could be a good compromise for political ads.

Facebook’s representative in Canada agreed that ads can be an important part of the democratic conversation.

“The parliament of Canada has been very clear that the right thing to do for regulating election advertisements online is to maximize transparency,” said Kevin Chan, the head of public policy for Facebook. “In many respects it would be easier, but digital advertising has been an incredibly democratizing force for businesses and campaigners.”

Facebook has pledged to comply with the government’s election advertising rules, but much of the committee revolved around Zuckerberg’s absence.

British MP Ian Lucas referred to his no-show as an “act of recidivism” and expressed frustration that he wasn’t present to answer questions about the Cambridge Analytica controversy.

“I’ve never seen a situation where a corporate head ignores a legal summons,” said Angus. The committee passed a motion allowing Zuckerberg and Sandberg to be formally issued a summons whenever they visit Canada “for any reason.”

If they come here “for a tech conference or to go fishing” they will be issued a summons, said Angus. If that summons is refused, the executives could be held in contempt.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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