17 min read

The Canadian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics are hosting a hearing on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy from Monday, May 27 to Wednesday, May 29 as a series of discussions with experts, and tech execs over the three days.

The committee invited expert witnesses to testify before representatives from 12 countries ( Canada, United Kingdom, Singapore, Ireland, Germany, Chile, Estonia, Mexico, Morocco, Ecuador, St. Lucia, and Costa Rica) on how governments can protect democracy and citizen rights in the age of big data.

The committee opened with a round table discussion where expert witnesses spoke about what they believe to be the most pressing issues facing lawmakers when it comes to protecting the rights of citizens in the digital age.

Expert witnesses that took part were:


  • Professor Heidi Tworek, University of British Columbia
  • Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next
  • Taylor Owen, McGill University
  • Ben Scott, The Center for Internet and Society, Stanford Law School
  • Roger McNamee, Author of Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe
  • Shoshana Zuboff, Author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
  • Maria Ressa, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Editor of Rappler Inc.
  • Jim Balsillie, Chair, Centre for International Governance Innovation

The session was led by Bob Zimmer, M.P. and Chair of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. Other members included Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, and Charlie Angus, M.P. and Vice-Chair of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. Also present was Damian Collins, M.P. and Chair of the UK Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Testimonies from the witnesses

“Personal data matters more than context”, Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next

The presentation started with Mr. Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a US based Trade association, who thanked the committee and appreciated the opportunity to speak on behalf of 80 high-quality digital publishers globally. He begins by saying how DCN has prioritized shining a light on issues that erode trust in the digital marketplace, including a troubling data ecosystem that has developed with very few legitimate constraints on the collection and use of data about consumers. As a result personal data is now valued more highly than context, consumer expectations, copyright, and even facts themselves.

He believes it is vital that policymakers begin to connect the dots between the three topics of the committee’s inquiry, data privacy, platform dominance and, societal impact. He says that today personal data is frequently collected by unknown third parties without consumer knowledge or control. This data is then used to target consumers across the web as cheaply as possible. This dynamic creates incentives for bad actors, particularly on unmanaged platforms, like social media, which rely on user-generated content mostly with no liability. Here the site owners are paid on the click whether it is from an actual person or a bot on trusted information or on disinformation.

He says that he is optimistic about regulations like the GDPR in the EU which contain narrow purpose limitations to ensure companies do not use data for secondary uses. He recommends exploring whether large tech platforms that are able to collect data across millions of devices, websites, and apps should even be allowed to use this data for secondary purposes. He also applauds the decision of the German cartel office to limit Facebook’s ability to collect and use data across its apps and the web.

He further says that issues such as bot fraud, malware, ad blockers, clickbait, privacy violations and now disinformation are just symptoms. The root cause is unbridled data collection at the most personal level.  Four years ago DC ended the original financial analysis labeling Google and Facebook the duopoly of digital advertising. In a 150+ billion dollar digital ad market across the North America and the EU, 85 to 90 percent of the incremental growth is going to just these two companies. DNC dug deeper and connected the revenue concentration to the ability of these two companies to collect data in a way that no one else can. This means both companies know much of your browsing history and your location history. The emergence of this duopoly has created a misalignment between those who create the content and those who profit from it.

The scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge analytic underscores the current dysfunctional dynamic. With the power Facebook has over our information ecosystem our lives and our democratic systems it is vital to know whether we can trust the company. He also points out that although, there’s been a well documented and exhausting trail of apologies, there’s been little or no change in the leadership or governance of Facebook. In fact the company has repeatedly refused to have its CEO offer evidence to pressing international government. He believes there should be a deeper probe as there’s still much to learn about what happened and how much Facebook knew about the Cambridge Analytica scandal before it became public. Facebook should be required to have an independent audit of its user account practices and its decisions to preserve or purge real and fake accounts over the past decade.

He ends his testimony saying that it is critical to shed light on these issues to understand what steps must be taken to improve data protection. This includes providing consumers with greater transparency and choice over their personal data when using practices that go outside of the normal expectations of consumers. Policy makers globally must hold digital platforms accountable for helping to build a healthy marketplace and for restoring consumer trust and restoring competition.

“We need a World Trade Organization 2.0 “, Jim Balsillie, Chair, Centre for International Governance Innovation; Retired Chairman and co-CEO of BlackBerry

Jim begins by saying that Data governance is the most important public policy issue of our time. It is cross-cutting with economic, social, and security dimension. It requires both national policy frameworks and international coordination. A specific recommendation he brought forward in this hearing was to create a new institution for like-minded nations to address digital cooperation and stability. “The data driven economies effects cannot be contained within national borders”, he said, “we need new or reformed rules of the road for digitally mediated global commerce, a World Trade Organization 2.0”. He gives the example of Financial Stability Board which was created in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis to foster global financial cooperation and stability. He recommends forming a similar global institution, for example, digital stability board, to deal with the challenges posed by digital transformation. The nine countries on this committee plus the five other countries attending, totaling 14 could constitute founding members of this board which would undoubtedly grow over time.

“Check business models of Silicon Valley giants”, Roger McNamee, Author of Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe

Roger begins by saying that it is imperative that this committee and that nations around the world engage in a new thought process relative to the ways of controlling companies in Silicon Valley, especially to look at their business models. By nature these companies invade privacy and undermine democracy. He assures that there is no way to stop that without ending the business practices as they exist. He then commends Sri Lanka who chose to shut down the platforms in response to a terrorist act. He believes that that is the only way governments are going to gain enough leverage in order to have reasonable conversations. He explains more on this in his formal presentation, which took place yesterday.

“Stop outsourcing policies to the private sector”, Taylor Owen, McGill University

He begins by making five observations about the policy space that we’re in right now.

First, self-regulation and even many of the forms of co-regulation that are being discussed have and will continue to prove insufficient for this problem. The financial incentives are simply powerfully aligned against meaningful reform. These are publicly traded largely unregulated companies whose shareholders and directors expect growth by maximizing a revenue model that it is self part of the problem. This growth may or may not be aligned with the public interest.

Second, disinformation, hate speech, election interference, privacy breaches, mental health issues and anti-competitive behavior must be treated as symptoms of the problem not its cause. Public policy should therefore focus on the design and the incentives embedded in the design of the platforms themselves. If democratic governments determine that structure and design is leading to negative social and economic outcomes, then it is their responsibility to govern.

Third, governments that are taking this problem seriously are converging on a markedly similar platform governance agenda. This agenda recognizes that there are no silver bullets to this broad set of problems and that instead, policies must be domestically implemented and internationally coordinated across three categories:

  1. Content policies which seek to address a wide range of both supply and demand issues about the nature amplification and legality of content in our digital public sphere.
  2. Data policies which ensure that public data is used for the public good and that citizens have far greater rights over the use, mobility, and monetization of their data.
  3. Competition policies which promote free and competitive markets in the digital economy.

Fourth, the propensity when discussing this agenda to overcomplicate solutions serves the interests of the status quo. He then recommends sensible policies that could and should be implemented immediately:

  • The online ad micro targeting market could be made radically more transparent and in many cases suspended entirely.
  • Data privacy regimes could be updated to provide far greater rights to individuals and greater oversight and regulatory power to punish abuses.
  • Tax policy can be modernized to better reflect the consumption of digital goods and to crack down on tax base erosion and profit sharing.
  • Modernized competition policy can be used to restrict and rollback acquisitions and a separate platform ownership from application and product development.
  • Civic media can be supported as a public good. Large-scale and long term civic literacy and critical thinking efforts can be funded at scale by national governments, not by private organizations.

He then asks difficult policy questions for which there are neither easy solutions, meaningful consensus nor appropriate existing international institutions.

How we regulate harmful speech in the digital public sphere? He says, that at the moment we’ve largely outsourced the application of national laws as well as the interpretation of difficult trade-offs between free speech and personal and public harms to the platforms themselves. Companies who seek solutions rightly in their perspective that can be implemented at scale globally. In this case, he argues that what is possible technically and financially for the companies might be insufficient for the goals of the public good or the public policy goals.

What is liable for content online? He says that we’ve clearly moved beyond the notion of platform neutrality and absolute safe harbor but what legal mechanisms are best suited to holding platforms, their design, and those that run them accountable. Also, he asks how are we going to bring opaque artificial intelligence systems into our laws and norms and regulations?

He concludes saying that these difficult conversation should not be outsourced to the private sector. They need to be led by democratically accountable governments and their citizens.

“Make commitments to public service journalism”, Ben Scott, The Center for Internet and Society, Stanford Law School

Ben states that technology doesn’t cause the problem of data misinformation, and irregulation. It infact accelerates it. This calls for policies to be made to limit the exploitation of these technology tools by malignant actors and by companies that place profits over the public interest. He says, “we have to view our technology problem through the lens of the social problems that we’re experiencing.” This is why the problem of political fragmentation or hate speech tribalism and digital media looks different in each countries. It looks different because it feeds on the social unrest, the cultural conflict, and the illiberalism that is native to each society.

He says we need to look at problems holistically and understand that social media companies are a part of a system and they don’t stand alone as the super villains. The entire media market has bent itself to the performance metrics of Google and Facebook. Television, radio, and print have tortured their content production and distribution strategies to get likes shares and and to appear higher in the Google News search results. And so, he says, we need a comprehensive public policy agenda and put red lines around the illegal content. To limit data collection and exploitation we need to modernize competition policy to reduce the power of monopolies. He also says, that we need to publicly educate people on how to help themselves and how to stop being exploited.

We need to make commitments to public service journalism to provide alternatives for people, alternatives to the mindless stream of clickbait to which we have become accustomed.

“Pay attention to the physical infrastructure”, Professor Heidi Tworek, University of British Columbia

Taking inspiration from Germany’s vibrant interwar media democracy as it descended into an authoritarian Nazi regime, Heidi lists five brief lessons that she thinks can guide policy discussions in the future. These can enable governments to build robust solutions that can make democracies stronger.

Disinformation is also an international relations problem

Information warfare has been a feature not a bug of the international system for at least a century. So the question is not if information warfare exists but why and when states engage in it. This happens often when a state feels encircled, weak or aspires to become a greater power than it already is. So if many of the causes of disinformation are geopolitical, we need to remember that many of the solutions will be geopolitical and diplomatic as well, she adds.

Pay attention to the physical infrastructure

Information warfare disinformation is also enabled by physical infrastructure whether it is the submarine cables a century ago or fiber optic cables today. 95 to 99 percent of international data flows through undersea fiber-optic cables. Google partly owns 8.5 percent of those submarine cables. Content providers also own physical infrastructure She says, Russia and China, for example are surveying European and North American cables. China we know as of investing in 5G but combining that with investments in international news networks.

Business models matter more than individual pieces of content

Individual harmful content pieces go viral because of the few companies that control the bottleneck of information. Only 29% of Americans or Brits understand that their Facebook newsfeed is algorithmically organized. The most aware are the Finns and there are only 39% of them that understand that. That invisibility can provide social media platforms an enormous amount of power that is not neutral. At a very minimum, she says, we need far more transparency about how algorithms work and whether they are discriminatory.

Carefully design robust regulatory institutions

She urges governments and the committee to democracy-proof whatever solutions,  come up with. She says, “we need to make sure that we embed civil society or whatever institutions we create.” She suggests an idea of forming social media councils that could meet regularly to actually deal with many such problems. The exact format and the geographical scope are still up for debate but it’s an idea supported by many including the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, she adds.

Address the societal divisions exploited by social media

Heidi says, that the seeds of authoritarianism need fertile soil to grow and if we do not attend to the underlying economic and social discontents, better communications cannot obscure those problems forever.

“Misinformation is effect of one shared cause, Surveillance Capitalism”, Shoshana Zuboff, Author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Shoshana also agrees with the committee about how the themes of platform accountability, data security and privacy, fake news and misinformation are all effects of one shared cause. She identifies this underlying cause as surveillance capitalism and defines  surveillance capitalism as a comprehensive systematic economic logic that is unprecedented. She clarifies that surveillance capitalism is not technology. It is also not a corporation or a group of corporations. This is infact a virus that has infected every economic sector from insurance, retail, publishing, finance all the way through to product and service manufacturing and administration all of these sectors.

According to her, Surveillance capitalism cannot also be reduced to a person or a group of persons. Infact surveillance capitalism follows the history of market capitalism in the following way – it takes something that exists outside the marketplace and it brings it into the market dynamic for production and sale. It claims private human experience for the market dynamic. Private human experience is repurposed as free raw material which are rendered as behavioral data. Some of these behavioral data are certainly fed back into product and service improvement but the rest are declared of behavioral surplus identified for their rich predictive value. These behavioral surplus flows are then channeled into the new means of production what we call machine intelligence or artificial intelligence. From these come out prediction products.

Surveillance capitalists own and control not one text but two. First is the public facing text which is derived from the data that we have provided to these entities. What comes out of these, the prediction products, is the proprietary text, a shadow text from which these companies have amassed high market capitalization and revenue in a very short period of time.

These prediction products are then sold into a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures. The first name of this marketplace was called online targeted advertising and the human predictions that were sold in those markets were called click-through rates. By now that these markets are no more confined to that kind of marketplace. This new logic of surveillance capitalism is being applied to anything and everything.

She promises to discuss on more of this in further sessions.

“If you have no facts then you have no truth. If you have no truth you have no trust”, Maria Ressa, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Editor of Rappler Inc.

Maria believes that in the end it comes down to the battle for truth and journalists are on the front line of this along with activists. Information is power and if you can make people believe lies, then you can control them. Information can be used for commercial benefits as well as a means to gain geopolitical power. She says,

 If you have no facts then you have no truth. If you have no truth you have no trust.

She then goes on to introduce a bit about her formal presentation tomorrow saying that she will show exactly how quickly a nation, a democracy can crumble because of information operations. She says she will provide data that shows it is systematic and that it is an erosion of truth and trust.  She thanks the committee saying that what is so interesting about these types of discussions is that the countries that are most affected are democracies that are most vulnerable.

Bob Zimmer concluded the meeting saying that the agenda today was to get the conversation going and more of how to make our data world a better place will be continued in further sessions. He said, “as we prepare for the next two days of testimony, it was important for us to have this discussion with those who have been studying these issues for years and have seen firsthand the effect digital platforms can have on our everyday lives. The knowledge we have gained tonight will no doubt help guide our committee as we seek solutions and answers to the questions we have on behalf of those we represent. My biggest concerns are for our citizens’ privacy, our democracy and that our rights to freedom of speech are maintained according to our Constitution.”

Although, we have covered most of the important conversations, you can watch the full hearing here.

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