Canada said it plans to introduce regulations for online platforms that will include financial penalties for the dissemination of misinformation, a day after the signing of a global pact to address violent Internet speech.
But counterintelligence experts have warned that Canada is probably too small to exert a major influence on the technology giants and that the US refusal to adhere to the international agreement could hinder global efforts to address issues like the US online election interference.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Thursday at a meeting of world leaders and technology companies that the federal government will issue a digital map that illustrates how Canada intends to address issues such as hate speech, disinformation and electoral interference on the internet.
The document will serve as a guide for future regulations for online activities and will include "significant financial consequences" for technology companies ahead of the October federal elections. In April, the Canadian national computer security agency warned that it was "very likely" that foreign opponents would try to influence online elections.
"What we are seeing now is a digital sphere that has turned into the wild west, and it is because we, as governments and industry leaders, have not made enough of a real priority," Trudeau said. "But we must pay attention to what is happening. The true character of our countries is at the forefront."
The announcement comes the day after the world's largest social media companies have joined Canada and 17 other countries to support the Christchurch Call to Action. The voluntary agreement is in response to the March 15 attack by a hit man who used Facebook to attack live on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 51 people.
But a senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization official specializing in how Russia and other actors use social media to sow discord across the world said that Canada and other similar-sized countries have limited capacity to compel technology giants change by acting alone.
Janis Sarts, director of the NATO Center of Strategic Communications for Excellence in Riga, Latvia, said that the United States or the European Union must intervene to make the change effective.
"Individual countries can do a little, but frankly, from my point of view, I would be rather cautious about the overall effect of that kind of regulation in one country," he told The Globe and Mail Thursday during a meeting of NATO officials in Ottawa to discuss the center's work in detecting foreign political interference campaigns.
The federal government has long threatened stricter rules for technology giants, but has struggled to get Silicon Valley companies on board with existing measures.
Google has decided to ban political advertising during the upcoming federal elections rather than comply with the new rules on ad transparency. Facebook contested a federal investigation and B.C. privacy commissioners who have discovered that the social media giant has broken Canada's privacy laws, prompting federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien to denounce Facebook and demand more parliamentary control powers.
The emerging consensus among countries like Canada also lacks US support, where most major technology companies are based and where efforts to regulate online platforms have been hampered by a growing partisan division.
The United States declared this week that it would not support the invitation to the Christchurch action. The White House has instead launched a website for people who report evidence of political bias by technology companies.
"Social media platforms should promote freedom of speech," the website said. "Yet too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned or fraudulently reported for unclear" user policy violations. "
Several candidates for the democratic presidency have called for the breakup of large technology companies.
The actions of the United States are "an important signal that is potentially considering different forms of regulation, or even potentially other types of social pressure," said Joan Donovan, director of the research project on technology and social change at the # 39; Harvard University.
The Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains told reporters in Paris today that having more than a dozen countries behind an agreement to counter online extremism could help bring the United States to table.
"We are working with like-minded nations and clearly this will put pressure on other countries, including the United States, to recognize that this is a real problem and that we need to address it in a meaningful way," he said.
Smaller countries like Canada struggle to control US technology giants for fear that companies will close services that are too expensive for the police. Any coordinated global effort will probably come across conflicting views on how to regulate online discourses and to what extent penalizing US companies.
"Individually, all countries have really struggled with this idea of what taxation means for US companies operating in their country," said Robyn Caplan, a research company affiliated with the Data & Society Research Institute in New York.
"And then doing it on a larger scale, in which there are countries that are still registering who can have different standards for the speech, this is a much more difficult question that will take months, if not years".