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Testifying at Parliament on Social Media Oversight
30 May 2019, 11h30 EDT (UTC-4)

My Testimony to the House Committee on Justice and Human Rights
Click image to hear my address

In a breathtakingly short period, a handful of social media firms have come to utterly dominate the global marketplace of news and ideas. Their platforms have made it possible for oppressed peoples to unite and speak truth to power; simultaneously, they have also enabled corrupt figures to divide and oppress societies with a fog of hate and disinformation.

Should governments regulate social media? Some of democracy’s most sacrosanct principles collide in this debate: freedom of expression; the right of all citizens to dignity and equality; and the imperative of national democratic oversight in a globalised world.

The Canadian House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights invited me to advise them on these questions, in my capacity as Chief Executive Officer of the Mosaic Institute. The transcript of my testimony is below.

* * *

Mesdames et messieurs les membres du Comité permanent de la justice et des droits de la personne de la Chambre des communes: l’Institut Mosaïque est reconnaissant de pouvoir participer à vos délibérations sur la haine en ligne. Nous reconnaissons que votre temps est compté et que vous devez être sélectifs quant aux organisations que vous invitez devant vous. Nous vous remercions de nous avoir inclus.

Mosaic is a Canadian charitable institute that advances pluralism in societies and peace amongst nations. It operates through Track Two Diplomacy, and brings together people, communities, and states, to foster mutual understanding and to resolve conflict.

Over the years, we have convened Chinese and Tibetan youth leaders, on peaceful co-existence on the Tibetan Plateau; we have assembled Sinhalese and Tamil representatives, on reconciliation after the Sri Lankan civil war; and we have called together survivors of genocides, to combat future global atrocities.

Fundamentally, our mission is to break cycles of hatred and violence, by building empathy and common ground between peoples at strife.

We have seen first-hand how the speed and reach of social media has made it both a means of bringing us all together, and a weapon to set us all at one another’s throats.

The stakes are unutterably high. In our work with the Rohingya people, it has become clear to us that social media played a determinative role in spreading disinformation, fomenting hatred, and co-ordinating mass slaughter, ending with the deaths of at least ten thousand innocent people and the ethnic cleansing of at least a million more.

Canada is not Myanmar. Nevertheless, the ability of Parliament to contain and combat online hatred and incitement, will quite literally, decide whether people live or die.

Now, it should go without saying that in a just and democratic society, there is no higher ideal, no greater ethic, no more sacrosanct imperative, than freedom of expression.

Peace, order, and good government; liberté, égalité, fraternité; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- all are impossible without free public discourse. And freedom of expression becomes meaningless if it does not include freedom to offend, freedom to outrage, and quite frankly, freedom to make a public ass of oneself. Not that that ever happens in the House of Commons.

Any abridgement of freedom of expression must therefore be only the barest minimum necessary to preserve the dignity and security of citizens.

We believe that Canadian laws defining illicit hate speech are sufficient for that purpose, and the scope of proscribed speech need not and should not be expanded further. Legal, regulatory, and social media frameworks fall short not in defining hate, but in identifying it and quarantining it, before the virus spreads and wrecks its damage.

We do not underestimate the scale of the challenge legislators and social media firms face. During the two-and-a-half hours set aside for this hearing, there will be 54 million new tweets and 4.7 billion new Facebook posts, comments, and messages.

Our recommendations for your consideration are as follows:

First, social media firms must -- either voluntarily or under legal compulsion -- adhere to a set of industry standards, on the speed with which they review reports that posts violate Canadian anti-hate laws or their platforms’ own terms of service. For example, European Union standards require firms to review a majority of reports within one day.

Second, social media firms should be required to have specific conduits to prioritise complaints from trusted institutions about offending content. A complaint from a children’s aid society, for one, should be treated with immediate concern.

Third, there must be financial consequences for firms that fail to remove illegal content within a set period, penalties severe enough to make the costs of inaction greater than the costs of action. Germany’s Network Enforcement Act sets fines as high as 50 million euros, when illegal posts stay up for more than twenty-four hours.

Fourth, social media firms should be required to publish regular transparency reports, providing anonymised information on, inter alia: the performance of their machine-learning systems at automatically intercepting proscribed posts; the speed with which firms respond to complaints from victims, trusted institutions, and the public at large; and the accuracy of their response to complaints, as measured by a system of third-party random sampling.

Fifth, social media firms must be more forthcoming in revealing the factors and weightings they use to decide what posts are prioritised to their users, and they must give users greater and easier control to adjust those settings. Too often, social media platforms privilege content that engages users by stoking fear and hatred. A business model based on dividing our communities should be no more acceptable than one based on burning down our cities.

Sixth, Parliament should enact the necessary appropriations and regulations to ensure that CSIS and the CSE have the mandate and means to identify and disrupt organised efforts by hostile state and transnational actors to exploit social media, to sow hatred and polarisation amongst Canadians.

Seventh, Parliament should consider legislative instruments, to ensure that individuals and organisations that engage in incitement to hatred, bear vicarious civil liability for any violent and harassing acts committed by third parties influenced by their posts.

Eighth, the federal government should fund school programmes to build young Canadians’ abilities to resist polarisation and hatred, and to cultivate critical thinking and empathy. The best defence against hatred is a population determined not to hate.

Finally, especially in this election year, Parliamentarians must lead by example.

Every one of us in this room knows that the guardians of our democracy are not ministers, but legislators. We look to you to stand between our leaders and the levers of power, to ensure that public office and public resources are used only in the public interest. More than that, we look to you to be the mirror of our better selves, to broker the mutual understanding that makes it possible for a vast and pluralistic society to thrive together as one people in one country.

During the upcoming campaign, you and your parties will face your own choices on social media: whether to campaign by degrading your opponents, whether to animate your supporters through appeals to anger, or whether to summon the better angels of our natures.

Your choices will set the tone of social media this summer more decisively than any piece of legislation or regulation you might enact. I hope you rise to the occasion.


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