Canada could stand to benefit from the legwork done by Europe to crack down on social media companies, says the European Union's ambassador to Canada.
Peteris Ustubs described the EU's Code of Practice on Disinformation — which was recently mentioned by Canada's Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould — as the product of an extensive process that ultimately succeeded at getting big players like Facebook, Google and Twitter to sign on.
The EU code encourages social media companies to suppress disinformation on their platforms and boost transparency through regular reporting. The European Commission has said it has resulted in fake accounts being removed, and "meaningful progress in a number of areas, in particular on political ads transparency tools" that all platforms are now making available ahead of European Parliament elections beginning May 23.
Twitter, for example, expanded its political campaigning ads policy in February to cover all EU member states, it noted in a report to the commission, and restricted campaign ads to only certified advertisers after March 11.
It's up to Canada to decide how it wants to engage with the companies, Ustubs said Friday. But if the Trudeau government wants to adopt the EU's social media-endorsed rules, they're available and ready to be copied, he explained.
“We were very pleased to welcome Minister Gould in this room, with all the EU ambassadors, in order to discuss our practices and our co-operation, and what the European Union has done so far on electoral processes, making sure that there is no interference, and how we actually deal with the platforms," Ustubs said April 12, at the EU delegation's office in Ottawa.
"For the European Union, the engagement with platforms took quite a while, so it was quite a long process. We established several working groups, not only internal ones but specifically with the platforms, in order to come together and try to craft the (Code of Practice) for the elections. That process was completed last year, and we are very pleased to make sure that that (code) is also accessible to Canada. But it would be for Canada to decide."
Brussels put the rules in place last fall following reports of election interference in EU member countries, and ahead of the next EU Parliament vote. Senior EU diplomats expect “Russia-based organizations” to attempt to influence the vote by “hacking into institutions and spreading fake news," the Financial Times reported.
Facebook, Google and Twitter have all taken steps to beef up defences when it comes to election integrity, and all say they want to ensure people can access accurate information and avoid misleading reports or manipulation.
But Gould has said she would like to see more done by the platforms. On Monday, following a report from the national electronic spy agency that said Canadians are “very likely” to be targeted by foreign meddling in connection with the 2019 federal election in October, she raised the prospect of the platforms applying the EU's code to Canada.
"I would have liked to have seen more transparency with Canadians, with the actions they are taking. Right now we only hear from social media companies when they decide to share information with us," she said. "I think we would like to see more regular reporting, something similar to what they have in the EU with the Code of Practice leading up to the EU elections."
Ustubs said each country "is going to decide their own ways of co-operating with platforms," and whether the EU's code would result in complete compliance was hard to tell at this point. "Whether this is a perfect picture, perfect outcome, we will see — but at least we have an extremely good starting point," he said.
Just getting the platforms "around the table and talking" and agreeing with the code was significant, he said. "At the same time, starting to judge by this code of conduct, how it is working and what kind of results it brings, we need a little bit of time, seeing how exactly the provisions in the code are implemented."
Honoured to welcome @karinagould Min. of Democratic Institutions with #EU Heads of Mission for timely exchanges as #EU and #Canada share the same worldview based on democratic values and are committed to defending our fundamental democratic processes. #closerthanever pic.twitter.com/ImqGWz6zq3— Brice de Schietere, Chargé d'affaires (@EUAmbCanada) February 4, 2019
Platforms asked about EU code for Canada
Gould had also said she talked to the platforms about undertaking what she referred to as “Canada Too principles.” She portrayed a system where “programs and projects that they’ve rolled out in other jurisdictions with regards to their elections” are applied in Canada as well.
The Trudeau government passed Bill C-76 in December, requiring platforms to keep a registry of political and partisan ads.
National Observer asked Facebook Canada, Google Canada and Twitter Canada on Friday whether they would be willing to follow the EU Code of Practice.
“We have responsibilities to keep people safe on our services and are committed to tackling harmful content online,” a Facebook Canada spokesperson said in response. “New rules for the internet should protect society from harm while also supporting innovation, the digital economy and freedom of speech. These are complex issues and we are always open to discussing these important topics with the government.”
Facebook is making buyers to confirm identities to run election-related ads. The company has a suite of tools to capture political ad information and is expecting to roll out additional tools for advertisers before the end of June. Through its Canadian Election Integrity Effort, it believes it's improving authenticity and transparency.
A representative for Google Canada did not return a request for comment before publication. Google Canada head of government policy Colin McKay told National Observer Monday that the company was committed to combating misinformation, and that it had met “several times” with Gould and her staff, as well as Elections Canada, the commissioner of elections and the Privy Council Office to talk about transparency.
"We have every intention of continuing our close work with government to protect Canada’s democratic institutions and election activities,” he said.
Google is banning political advertising on its platform before Canada’s election. It has published a white paper on how the company says it is fighting misinformation across its products and is working with the Canadian Journalism Foundation and Canada’s Centre for Cyber Security to prepare for the election.
A representative for Twitter Canada declined comment. Twitter has been suspending thousands of accounts in connection with attempted influence campaigns and publishing the data in an attempt to be more transparent and tackle interference. A February CBC/Radio-Canada analysis of 9.6 million tweets, which the company has deleted, showed trolls "stoked controversy over pipelines and immigration in Canada.”
“In light of the upcoming European Parliament elections and in line with our commitments to the European Commission Code of Practice on Disinformation, we are taking active steps to stop malicious accounts and tweets from spreading at scale,” the company wrote in a January EU code of practice report.
The platform says on its website that it is working alongside political parties and election commissions “around the world” and staying alert to suspicious activity reports.