The federal government should regulate social media giants to better protect the next election from attempts at foreign disruption, a blue-ribbon international group will say next week.

The report by the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, whose members include several top former political leaders from around the world, will praise the Canadian government for the steps it has taken to date to prevent foreign election interference — such as strengthening Canada’s laws, investing in cybersecurity defence, preparing systems across the government and committing to informing the public if there is interference that risks affecting the election’s result.

“Canada has done a great deal to protect democracy here and elsewhere,” Allan Rock, Canadian commissioner for the group and a former federal justice minister. told CBC News. “But there’s one area where we feel that there is more to be done in terms of regulating social media platforms. So we’ll have recommendations there.”

The commission, which was founded by former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen and former U.S. Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff to fight foreign interference in 20 elections around the world, has been looking over the past year at Canada’s readiness to confront “foreign malign interference” in the next election, said Rock.

Government can’t rely on self-regulation: Rock

The commission’s report is to be made public Tuesday.

Rock said the era when governments could rely on social media companies to regulate themselves is over.

“I think we should not only express our expectations of social media platforms but lay down, through regulations, some very specific guidelines, while respecting freedom of information and without making government the arbiter of the truth,” he said. “I think there are steps that can be taken and we will be detailing some of those in the report next week.”

The priority of senior officers in big social media companies is to maximize value for shareholders — not to defend Canada’s democracy, Rock said.

“That’s the government’s job and that’s our job as citizens.”

Social media companies have to behave more responsibly, he said.

‘They’re not just neutral platforms’

“Where they see that people are being impersonated to fool the public, where they see that there’s obviously false information being put out that causes harm, I think they’re accountable for that,” Rock said. “They’re not just neutral platforms. They have a responsibility to the user and to the public.”

Rock said he also would like to see a change to social media algorithms.

“The technologies themselves, they have aspects to them that tend toward abuse,” he said. “They magnify extreme voices, they give the false impression that extreme views are more popular than they are. They drive the user to other extreme sites.

“There are characteristics of the technology that should be fixed to provide for a level platform, not one that’s tilted in favour of disinformation and distortion.”

However, Rock disagreed with the idea of simply cancelling government advertising on social media platforms if those companies won’t cooperate.

“Social media platforms have taken on a huge importance that can’t be ignored,” he said.

‘An attitude of disinterest … contempt’

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to appear in Ottawa last month before a committee composed of elected officials from nearly a dozen countries “indicates an attitude of disinterest, perhaps contempt, which I think has to be confronted and that’s where regulation comes in,” Rock said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould have both mused publicly about regulating social media companies if they refuse to cooperate with the government to curb misuse of their platforms.

Arif Virani, parliamentary secretary to Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, said the government’s discussions with social media groups have “not yet yielded the results we expect.” (CBC)

Rock’s comments came after he participated in panel discussion, hosted by the MacDonald Laurier Institute, which included an expert from the U.S., one from Europe and Liberal MP Arif Virani, who serves as Gould’s parliamentary secretary.

Outlining the steps the government has taken to prevent online disruption of the election, Virani said the government has been talking with individual social media platforms — but “those discussions are progressing slowly and have not yet yielded the results we expect.”

“These are large behemoths that have balance sheets larger than the GDPs of many nations on this earth,” Virani said. “Who’s kidding who … We’re having issues with holding these platforms accountable. We recognize that and as Minister Gould has also said, the era of self-regulation is clearly coming to an end.”

Elizabeth Thompson is part of a CBC team investigating online misinformation and attempts to disrupt the upcoming Canadian election. Have a tip? She can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca


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