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  1. PMO Staff Run Government; Ministers Represent It
  2. On A Mostly Harmless Birthday
  3. The Trouble With Political Communications
  4. Politics: War By Other Means
  5. On the function of Social media
  6. C-18 is an existential threat, not a benefit, to democracy
  7. On Missing A Little More Than A Sub
  8. The Realpolitik Of Open Nomination
  9. What Is An Open Nomination, Really?
  10. Alberta election about identity, not policy
  11. The Trouble With Electoral Reform
  12. Mr. Bains Goes to Rogers
  13. Question Period
  14. Why do lockdowns and pandemic restrictions continue to exist?
  15. Parliamentary privilege: an arcane concept that can prevent coups
  16. It's not over yet
  17. Trump will win in 2020 (and keep an eye on 2024)
  18. A podcast with Michael Geist on technology and politics
  19. Next steps
  20. On what electoral reform reforms
  21. 2019 Fall campaign newsletter / infolettre campagne d'automne 2019
  22. 2019 Summer newsletter / infolettre été 2019
  23. 2019-07-15 SECU 171
  24. 2019-06-20 RNNR 140
  25. 2019-06-17 14:14 House intervention / intervention en chambre
  26. 2019-06-17 SECU 169
  27. 2019-06-13 PROC 162
  28. 2019-06-10 SECU 167
  29. 2019-06-06 PROC 160
  30. 2019-06-06 INDU 167
  31. older entries...

On the function of Social media

With the recent and continued controversy over Bill C-18 and the growing spat between the federal government and the world's social media giants, it's important to explore what social media companies actually are.

Fundamentally, social media companies track who you are and what you do, like, and want, in order to target advertising toward you. You are the product being sold, which is why you do not pay for the services offered.

This is not all that different from traditional media. As CanWest founder Izzy Asper famously said, the media is not in the business of selling news, they're "in the business of selling soap."

That social media empires have out-competed traditional media on the soap-selling front is not something that can be solved by simply offering compensation to the previous soap-sellers. Social media companies know whether you want soap, when you need it, and what scent you prefer. The traditional media advertising model tells everyone equally that soap can be bought.

News - real journalism - can never function to its true potential when its whole economic model is based on selling soap, rather than being built around the primary purpose of sharing accurate and validated information in the public interest. All the more so if there's something negative to report about soap. Journalism needs to be seen and funded as a public good, not purely as a business.

Ask any small newspaper what the first cost they will cut in a financial pinch is, and, as the person who owned most of the newspapers in my riding told me, the answer is: the journalists.

Social media make you both the journalist and the consumer of soap.

One of the most fascinating experiences I had in office at committee was when I crashed the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics (ETHI), when it sat jointly with Members of Parliament from the United Kingdom, Singapore, Ireland, Germany, Estonia, Mexico, Morocco, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Santa Lucia to tackle the influence of social media giants on society under the name the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy, and Democracy, part of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation initiative (igcd.org) involving parliamentarians from the 21 nations of: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Mexico, Morocco, Singapore, St. Lucia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The committee sat for several days, interviewing some of the brightest minds of our time on the topic, such as Shoshana Zuboff, author of "Surveillance Capitalism", Roger McNamee, early facebook investor and author of "Zucked" and Jim Balsillie of RIM/Blackberry fame, as well as representatives from Facebook, Google, twitter, the US Federal Election Commission, and numerous other witnesses such as renowned filipino journalist Maria Ressa, over several days.

Mark Zuckerburg, founder and owner of Facebook, declined our invitation and as a committee we issued a Summons requiring him to appear at the Committee, which would be reconvened for the purpose, should he set foot in Canada, an unusual step that was, to my knowledge, never acted on, but demonstrates the theoretical power of a Parliamentary committee.

I was not a member of the committee and, by agreement on the numbers present by the permanent members in order to make room for the foreign delegations, I should not have been there. As a sitting MP, my presence could not be excluded by rule, and it was my one chance to ask Facebook and Google directly about their values. I tried to make my five minutes count to try and address, fundamentally, the business model of social media:

The Chair:

Thank you.

We have to move on. I want to highlight what's going to happen in the next 30 minutes. We have two members of the Canadian committee who haven't spoken yet. We're going to give them five minutes each. That gives us, with the people who have asked for second questions, about 20 minutes, approximately three minutes per individual.

Again, we'll go to Mr. Graham first and Mr. Saini, and then we'll go by country.

Go ahead, Mr. Graham.

Mr. David de Burgh Graham:

Thank you very much.

I want to get straight into this. I'm going to focus on Google and Facebook for a minute.

Do you accept the term “surveillance capitalism”, Google?

Mr. Colin McKay:

I think it's an exaggeration of the situation, but it reflects social pressures and a recognition that there is an increasing worry about the data that's collected about individuals.

Mr. David de Burgh Graham:


Mr. Kevin Chan:

I cringed, I think, when I read it the first time.

Mr. David de Burgh Graham:

You track individuals on the Internet in any way, shape or form without their knowledge or explicit consent at any time for any reason, and you do so for profit.

Mr. Colin McKay:

We have a pretty clear relationship with our users about what information we collect and what we use it for. We secure consent for the information that we use.

Mr. David de Burgh Graham:

But you don't only track information on users. You track information on anybody on the Internet. If you look at Google Analytics and any of these other services that track anybody passing through another website that has nothing to do with Google, you're collecting vastly more data than what is provided voluntarily by users. My question is, again, are you collecting data on people for profit and, if so, is that not surveillance capitalism?

Mr. Colin McKay:

I think in the broad circumstance you just described around people using the Internet, we're not collecting information about people. We're measuring behaviour and we're measuring.... Sorry, that's the wrong term. I can hear the chuckle.

We're measuring how people act on the Internet and providing data around that, but it's not around an individual. It's around an actor.

Mr. David de Burgh Graham:

Or it's around a type of individual, an IP address or this type of information. You are collecting data that can be indexed to people. My point, and I want to take it further than that, is that governments have a tremendous surveillance capacity, as we all know. At least in this country and a lot of other countries around this table, we now have a committee of parliamentarians to oversee our security apparatus, and they go in a classified setting. They dive deeply into the intelligence agencies, what they do, how they do it and why, and they report it back.

If these committees were either created to just focus on social media companies or this committee was applied to it, what surprises would they find?

Mr. Kevin Chan:

Sir, as I've indicated, we want to do more than that by our actions. We're going to make all of that available and then people can...including things that are off platform. If there's a site that uses, let's say, a plug-in or something like that from Facebook, you have available all that information and you can do whatever it is you want with it. You can remove things. You can delete things. You can transfer it. You can download it. That is our commitment and we will be moving fast to get it done.

Mr. David de Burgh Graham:

I appreciate that, but if you go into Facebook and ask it to download your data, the data that it gives you is not a comprehensive collection of what Facebook has on you as a user.

Mr. Kevin Chan:

Right. I think you're referring to when you download your information you get things like the photos and the videos.

Mr. David de Burgh Graham:

You get a handful of your pictures, a handful of your updates and have a nice day.

Mr. Kevin Chan:

That's right. What we want to do is build...and it takes a bit of time. If you can bear with me, it takes a little bit more time to build something that's much more ambitious, which is to then give you actual control over not just the things that you put on Facebook but all the activity that you may have done with social plugs-ins elsewhere, where we can give you the ability to control and remove stuff if you so choose.

Mr. David de Burgh Graham:

If Mark Zuckerberg were to run for president of the United States, for example, what limits his ability to use Facebook's data, machines, algorithms and collection to feed his campaign?

Mr. Kevin Chan:

Sir, if I may, that is a very good question, and that's precisely why we have the policies that we have in place and why we hold so steadfastly to them. It's not...and I think the question kind of came about in a different way. It was, “What if there was a photo of Mark Zuckerberg or a video of Mark Zuckerberg?” The treatment would be the same. That's because these policies have to hold regardless of the direction the wind blows.

As I said before, we understand that people may not be comfortable with the degree of transparency and the degree to which Facebook is able to make these decisions about what happens on our service, which is why we're building this external oversight board, so that these decisions, so that many of these hard precedential decisions, will not be made by Facebook alone. There will be an ability to appeal to an independent body that can make these decisions that would govern the speech on a platform.

Mr. David de Burgh Graham:

I only have seconds, and I want to come back to the independent body in a second.

My point is, if Neil Potts runs for president of the United States and Mark Zuckerberg runs for president of the United States, I suspect that the support from Facebook and the data usage from Facebook would not be the same. On that basis, it would be very hard to say that having Mark Zuckerberg and Neil Potts here is equivalent.

Mr. Kevin Chan:

Again, our policies are for everyone. We would not make any exceptions for anybody, which is in fact why we have these kinds of robust conversations.

Mr. David de Burgh Graham:

Does Mr. Zuckerberg have a—

The Chair:

We're actually out of time. Sorry, Mr. Graham.

Unfortunately I ran out of time before getting to my final question, clarifying whether Mark Zuckerberg has the power to change facebook policies at any time given his absolute control of the company.

It isn’t that I object to social media – I am an avid user. At the end of the day the issue is informed consent. I understand how they work and I accept it; I do not pay for the service, and therefore understand that I am, in fact, the product being sold. This understanding is not shared by all and is not clearly stated by the companies that work that way.

Be clear with what you are doing, and there is no issue. The recent decision by Apple to include a setting about cross-application tracking within applications like facebook, and the overwhelming reaction of users to disable it, demonstrates the extent to which users were not aware and are not comfortable with the business model for the service they essentially take for granted.

But social media is not the cause of the financial failure of journalism. That is rooted in selling soap instead of news.

Originally posted on SubStack.

Posted at 04:50 on July 12, 2023

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