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Canada launches Digital Charter to protect privacy and tackle extremism

Image credit: Dreamstime

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Innovation Minister have released a Digital Charter which lays out a future digital framework, including the responsibilities of online platforms to tackle extremist content and a review of privacy laws both for government and the public and private sectors.

Last week, Trudeau joined other world leaders for a summit in Paris - hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - seeking an international agreement to stamp out violent extremism online. These efforts have been accelerated after an alleged white supremacist terrorist killed 50 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand, broadcasting the murderous rampage on Facebook Live. The footage was found to have spread across all major social media platforms, including Reddit, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

While Australia immediately introduced a law which could fine social media companies up to 10 per cent of their annual global turnover and jail executives for failing to remove “abhorrent violent material” from online platforms, Ardern said that her government would not rush to pass legislation targeting violent content online, as any agreement made with social media companies must have a global reach.

At last week’s Paris summit, the largest tech companies pledged with world leaders to flight “hatred and extremism that lead to terrorist violence” on their platforms. The representatives agreed on a nine-point action plan through which the companies would explicitly prohibit the distribution of this content, establish new tools to make it easier for users to report violent content and collaborate with their rivals to inhibit the spread of this content.

The agreement was signed by technology companies Facebook, Google and its subsidiary YouTube, Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter, Daily Motion and Qwant, alongside the governments of the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the European Commission, Indonesia, France, Germany, India, Japan, Spain, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Jordan, Norway, Sweden, and Senegal. The US formally declined to sign the agreement.

Less than a week later, Canada has revealed its own charter which – among other targets – aims to crack down on viral deception and hate speech in line with the agreement, whilst also updating Canada’s ageing privacy regulations.

“The platforms are failing their users and they’re failing our citizens,” Trudeau said. “They have to step up in a major way to counter disinformation. And if they don’t, we will hold them to account and there will be meaningful financial consequences.”

“The government of Canada will defend freedom of expression and protect against online threats and disinformation designed to undermine the integrity of elections and democratic institutions. Canadians can expect that digital platforms will not foster or disseminate hate, violent extremism or criminal content. There will be clear, meaningful penalties for violations of the laws and regulations that support these principles.”

The ten principles of the charter are: universal access; safety and security; control and consent; transparency, portability, and interoperability; open and modern digital government; a level playing field; ensuring data and digital media are used for good; strong democracy; freedom from hate and violent extremism; and strong enforcement and real accountability.

Navdeep Bains, the Canadian minister of innovation, science and economic development, commented that: “Canadians’ trust in the digital world is shaken. But in this new age, Canada’s competitiveness will depend on our ability to use digital innovation to harness the power of data.”

“Canada’s Digital Charter and its 10 principles set the foundation to rebuild Canadians’ trust and empower them to reach their full innovative and economic potential. We are building a Canada where citizens have confidence that their data is safe and privacy is respected, unlocking the kind of innovation that builds a strong economy that works for everyone,” he continued.

As part of the Digital Charter, Bains has committed to a review of privacy law for both private sector organisations (the Personal Information Protection and Electronics Documents Act) and federal government institutions to increase transparency, following a controversial 2018 plan by Trudeau’s government to collect and centralise Canadians’ banking information. Changes to this legislation are likely to have to wait until after October’s election. Bains also promised more effective mechanisms to enforce these laws and wrote to Canada’s Competition Bureau to ensure that it was sufficiently equipped to promote competition in the digital sector.

While Bains said that there would be “clear, meaningful penalties” for internet companies which violate Canadian law, he did not specify the magnitude of these fines.

According to law professor Michael Geist, writing in The Globe and Mail, the charter and pledges are an acknowledgement that Canadian privacy law “badly needs a rewrite”.

“If enacted – the digital charter includes a detailed background paper on privacy law reformed that suggests legislative action will only come after the fall election – the changes would constitute the most significant privacy law amendments in decades,” Geist wrote.

Last month, Canadian privacy commissioners fiercely accused Facebook of breaking the country's privacy laws and refusing to accept responsibility for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The commissioners are seeking a court order to force Facebook to follow their recommendations to protect the privacy of its users: recommendations which the company has rejected thus far.

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