Patience with Facebook is exhausted. Ottawa must start taming Big Tech again


Is our collective patience with Facebook and the other digital giants who abuse their enormous power finally exhausted? Has a tipping point finally been reached?

Hopefully following the latest Facebook revelations, documented last month by the Wall Street Journal through internal company documents, and highlighted again last week in a powerful testimony to the US Congress by a Facebook whistleblower.

That whistleblower was Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who summed up the issue as clearly as anyone could. It’s not that the social media giant is causing damage despite the best efforts of its executives. Rather, it is designed to do the same damage, its leaders know it and they choose not to act.

This is how Haugen told a US Senate subcommittee: “Company executives know how to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won’t make the necessary changes because they have shifted their huge profits to the next level. before people.

Anyone who has paid attention over the past few years knows that Facebook, Google, and a few other digital behemoths have far too much power and have created an online ecosystem that has degraded our quality of life in so many ways.

We wrote it a year ago after watching a damning documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” in which former executives of so-called FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) sounded the doorbell. alarm on the world they helped to create. :

“They have built systems that make billions by exploiting our weaknesses and have exacerbated a series of deeply rooted problems ranging from drug addiction to isolation, political polarization, extremism, even suicide and others. forms of self-harm. “

That’s the big picture, and internal company documents leaked by Haugen to the Wall Street Journal confirm it and add important new details.

They show, for example, that Facebook has routinely exempted high-level users from its anti-harassment rules; that it has failed to address internal concerns that its platforms are being abused in developing countries; and that he manipulated his algorithm in a way that deliberately made discourse on the platform (in the Journal’s word) “angrier,” with predictable negative consequences for public life.

More worryingly, the leaked documents show the company knows that Instagram, one of its biggest platforms, is harmful to a significant number of young users, especially teenage girls. His own internal research concluded that Instagram is detrimental to the mental health of many girls, but he downplayed all of this and kept the information out of lawmakers and researchers.

Knowing all this is one thing; doing something is another. For years, governments have mostly remained passive as Facebook and others have made their way, amassing incredible wealth and power while changing the way we live, work, communicate, do business and debate. public issues. All this while refusing to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Right now, almost everyone agrees that something must be done. At the simplest level, we need minimum standards for public debate, some rules of the road for authorized speech in what amounts to the 21st century public square.

Even Facebook, Twitter and the rest agree; it shouldn’t be up to them to decide who should speak and how far they should be allowed to go. It is a matter of democratic decision. Governments, at the end of the day, must act on behalf of all of us. They shouldn’t be trying to outsource democracy to digital giants.

In Canada, the Trudeau government recognizes the problem, but is slow to act. A bill to crack down on online hate was passed by the Commons in June, but was not passed until the federal election put everything in place. And the heritage minister presented a promising approach to tackling online “harms” such as child exploitation and terrorism, but failed to introduce real law.

The government, and whoever ministers in charge once a new cabinet is appointed, must return to it without delay. If action was needed before the election, the latest evidence from inside Facebook makes it even more urgent.

These are things that Canada can do on its own, but other measures are not the exclusive jurisdiction of this country. It will be up to the US government and the European Union, given the size of the European market, to institute much stricter supervision and regulation. They should, for example, demand more transparency around the now secret algorithms that incite the worst kind of online behavior.

Ultimately, Facebook et al would have to be dismantled to restore true competition in the digital market. The internet may have started as a free game, but giant corporations long ago turned into a series of monopolies whose power is nothing like that of the oil and railroad barons of an earlier era.

It is a long-term project that is not in the hands of Canadians. But in the meantime, we must do what we can. And that means the government should go back to its agenda to tame Big Tech.

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