Consumer Justice Can Shame Internet Giants


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he will bring in legislation regulating social-media outlets if they don’t regulate themselves. Trudeau was reacting to revelations that a British consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, mined Facebook customer data to assist political campaigns.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it appears Donald Trump’s team used the data to target potentially supportive voters. Barack Obama’s campaign managers have admitted they also used Facebook data in the 2012 U.S. election, though the techniques employed were different.

Facebook has responded by severing relations with Cambridge Analytica and promising to tighten data security. But this is merely the tip of a far larger iceberg.

Social-media giants such as Google and Facebook, by their very size, have become important purveyors of information. They have the power not just to misuse customer data, but also to control how we communicate with one another.

There have been allegations, for example, that Google has either blocked or banished to the end of its search chains users whose point of view it disagrees with.

Legally speaking, that’s permissible. Google is a private company and can act, within the law, as it sees fit.

Yet there is something troubling in the amassing of such power with no guarantees about how it is used. In our online age, the internet supplements the news stories and viewpoints that traditional media carry.

However, while there are well-established codes of conduct for radio stations, television outlets and newspapers, the same is not true for social media.

There are indeed laws against defamation, pirating of intellectual property and various forms of harassment. And we would all agree that customer data should be vigorously protected.

But what about pursuing an ideological agenda? Should controversial figures or topics be banned in the name of protecting decorum?

And how do we go about enforcing whatever requirements we decide are proper? If governments demand that social-media firms police themselves, aren’t we putting the fox in charge of the henhouse?

On the other hand, are we comfortable allowing politicians to play an oversight role?

One option would be to expand the mandate of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. This arm’s-length agency regulates the broadcasting industry to ensure that programming meets community standards.

Members of the public who believe a radio or TV station is behaving inappropriately can file a complaint, and the CRTC has the power to issue a stop order.

How far this authority could be extended into social media, however, is at best uncertain. Most of the larger firms are U.S.-based, where Canadian law does not apply.

The following is an editorial published in Victoria's Times Colonist on March 30.

Editorial: Facebook feels people power

The CRTC could be given the power to block access within our borders to firms that refuse to co-operate. However, it’s unclear whether the public would find such a far-reaching measure acceptable.

A better choice might be for the federal government to publish rules of behaviour and invite companies such as Facebook and Google to comply.

But perhaps the best hope is that customers themselves will force change. According to a recent Angus Reid survey, one in 10 Canadians now say they intend to abandon Facebook. And three in four plan to be more careful with the material they post.

It seems likely there will be a similar reaction in other countries, the U.S. in particular. And that strikes close to home. The company’s share value has declined 10 percent this year, and further hits are possible.

It’s questionable whether social-media giants would pay attention to anything the Canadian government might ask of them. They do, however, live in a competitive marketplace. If they play fast and loose, their customers have every reason to leave.

It might be that consumer justice, rather than the legal variety, will force the changes we need.

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