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Government-Backed Motion Demands Disclosure of Years of Third-Party Communications With Google and Facebook in Retribution for Opposing Bill C-18
Call on the companies to appear and bring as many tech critics as you like. But stay away from snooping on Canadians’ private communications.
The government plans to introduce a motion next week requiring Google and Facebook to turn over years of private third-party communication involving any Canadian regulation. The move represents more than just a remarkable escalation of its battle against the two tech companies for opposing Bill C-18 and considering blocking news sharing or linking in light of demands for hundreds of millions in payments. The motion – to be introduced by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage (yes, that guy) – calls for a series of hearings on what it describes as “current and ongoing use of intimidation and subversion tactics to avoid regulation in Canada”. In the context of Bill C-18, those tactics amount to little more than making the business choice that Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez made clear was a function of his bill: if you link to content, you fall within the scope of the law and must pay. If you don’t link, you are out of scope.
While the same committee initially blocked Facebook from even appearing on Bill C-18 (Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said he was ready for clause-by-clause review after just four hearings and no Facebook invitation), bringing the companies to committee to investigate the implications of their plans is a reasonable approach. But the motion isn’t just about calling executives before committee to answer questions from what will no doubt be a hostile group of MPs. The same motion sweeps in the private communications of thousands of Canadians, which is a stunning disregard for privacy and which could have a dangerous chilling effect on public participation. Indeed, the intent seems fairly clear: guilt by association for anyone who dares to communicate with these companies with an attempt to undermine critics by casting doubt on their motivations. Note that this approach is only aimed at those that criticize government legislation. There has been a painfully obvious lobbying campaign in support of the bill within some Canadian media outlets, but there are no efforts to uncover potential bias or funding for those that speak out in favour of Bill C-18, Bill C-11, or other digital policy initiatives.
It is hard to overstate the broad scope of the disclosure demands. Canadian digital creators concerned with Bill C-11 who wrote to Youtube would find their correspondence disclosed to the committee. So would researchers who sought access to data from Google or Facebook on issues such as police access to social media records or anti-hate groups who contacted Facebook regarding the government’s online harms proposal for automated reports to law enforcement. Privacy advocates focused on how Google administers the right to be forgotten in Canada would ironically find their correspondence disclosed as would independent media sites that wrote to Facebook about the implications of Bill C-18.
These are all private communications, yet the motion demands their disclosure to a committee that apparently views opposition to government legislation as a “subversion tactic.” Of course, the disclosure demands also extend to virtually anything the companies have ever said or done internally about the legislation. The same government that exempts from disclosure under the Access to Information Act virtually anything related to government bills and can take years to respond to requests has no business demanding every internal document from private entities within about 10 days without any allegation of illegal activity.
Bill C-18 mandates payments for links with costs that the government anticipates could rise to 35% of the news expenditures of every news outlet in Canada. That has led to the predictable result that Google and Facebook are considering blocking news links or news sharing. That isn’t intimidation or subversion. It is the unsurprising consequence of the government’s policy choice to tether its legislation to linking, rather than focus on reproduction of works or the creation of journalism fund. But regardless of your views of the bill or your dislike for tech giants, this motion should be viewed (to use the words of one MP from the Google hearing) as disloyal to Canadian democratic principles. Call on the companies to appear and bring as many tech critics as you like. But stay away from snooping on Canadians’ private communications.
Post originally appeared at https://www.michaelgeist.ca/2023/03/government-demands-disclosure-of-years-of-third-party-communications-with-google-and-facebook-in-retribution-for-opposing-bill-c-18/
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