April 19th, 2019

Timid effort on election meddling


By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on February 12, 2019.

What an awfully Canadian approach the Trudeau government is taking to the problem of potential foreign meddling in our elections.

A committee of senior bureaucrats, operating under the weighty acronym of the SITE (Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections) task force, will be standing by to alert voters if any outside entity tries to interfere with next fall’s federal election.

Whew! That’s a relief. The idea is it shouldn’t be left up to politicians to decide whether to blow the whistle, and it’s a good thought as far as it goes. The trouble is, it doesn’t go very far.

Of course we need to be on guard against foreign interference. Everyone wants to avoid a repeat of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which the Russian government tried to influence through hacking and covert online means.

But we don’t want to make the mistake of fighting the last war. The growth of so-called fake news and disinformation of all sorts is inextricably linked to the rise of social media, which presents enormous opportunities to manipulate voters in ways they may never suspect. And it’s disappointing that the federal government is doing little to attack that where it would do the most good – through the social media companies themselves.

Bill C-76, the reform to election laws that was adopted in December, does take steps to prevent foreign interference. It bans, for example, the use of foreign money by “third party” advocacy groups in the period leading up to an election. That means social media companies can’t knowingly accept ads paid for with foreign funds.

But the government could have gone a lot farther. It could have listened to the all-party House of Commons committee on information, privacy and ethics, which urged it to do more to protect Canadians’ privacy online and force Facebook, Twitter and the rest to up their game in monitoring malicious content.

The committee urged the government to label content produced automatically by “bots” more clearly and to remove fraudulent accounts that impersonate others. It suggested the government require the companies to remove “manifestly illegal content” quickly or face big fines.

The government could also have listened to knowledgable outsiders, such as the authors of a report last August by the Public Policy Forum. They recommended that the Elections Act be amended to bring “complete transparency to digital advertising.” Voters should have the same right to know about online political ads as they do about those on traditional publishers and broadcasters.

Instead, the government chose to go easy on the social media platforms. Bill C-76 didn’t include any of the measures suggested by the MPs and others. And Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould would say only that her department is having “ongoing conversations” with Facebook and Google.

In other words, the social media companies are being left pretty much on their own for now to address the problem. Facebook Canada says it plans to bring out new tools by June to ensure transparency for political ads along the lines of ones already introduced in countries like Britain and the United States. But it’s far from clear how effective those will be.

The reality is that the threat to elections – and democracy in general – doesn’t just come from nefarious foreign actors, or even mainly from them. It’s easy to demonize Russian (or Chinese) trolls, but the danger is much more widespread and hard to control.

The Internet makes it easy for political parties, third-party front groups, or really anyone at all to pollute the information stream with falsified or twisted information (“deep fake” videos that are almost impossible to distinguish from the real thing are the latest worry).

This is complex stuff and governments are understandably reluctant to try to regulate information. But the greater risk lies in trusting social media companies that have stumbled repeatedly in this area to do it entirely themselves. Relying on a committee of security bureaucrats to sound the alarm if all else fails is a remarkably timid approach.

An editorial from the Toronto Star

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