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Trudeau government poised to beef up bill to prevent foreign interference in 2019 election

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his newly shuffled cabinet will focus squarely on next year’s election at a two-day retreat this week – including a hard look at the very laws governing elections.

Last spring the government introduced Bill C-76, aimed at preventing foreign interference in elections and regulating third-party advocacy groups, as well as undoing a number of controversial measures passed by the previous Conservative government.

But insiders say the Liberals now want to beef up the bill, which was being studied by the procedure and House affairs committee when Parliament broke for the summer.

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Among other things, the government wants to do more to ensure foreign actors or money aren’t involved in elections, require more transparency for political messaging on social media and prevent political parties from setting up ostensible advocacy groups to support them and help skirt spending limits.

Ministers, who will hole up in Nanaimo, B.C., on Wednesday and Thursday, plan to hear from several experts on securing elections against cyberthreats, including Taylor Owen, a professor of digital media and global affairs at the University of British Columbia.

Owen co-authored a Public Policy Forum paper, released last week, which proposed options the government could adopt to prevent the use of social media to manipulate election results and spread disinformation and hate that erodes democratic discourse.

Among the options:

  • Require the publishers of online content to identify themselves;
  • Make internet companies legally liable for the content that appears on their platforms
  • Require platforms to clearly identify “bots,” automated social media accounts used to amplify messages;
  • Reintroduce a non-criminal remedy to investigate and respond to hate speech, along the lines of the anti-hate provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act, repealed in 2013 amid concerns it muzzled free speech;
  • Require much greater transparency for political advertising on digital media;
  • Design a “meaningful” way for Canadians to consent to the collection and use of their individual data, which would also apply to databases amassed by political parties.

Those proposals go considerably further than C-76. The bill would prohibit foreign entities from spending any money to influence elections and prohibit anyone from knowingly selling election advertising space to foreign entities.

On third parties, the bill would also require them to use a dedicated Canadian bank account for payment of election-related spending. It would also limit their spending on advertising, surveys and other election-related activities to $1 million in the two months before an election is called and to $500,000 during the campaign.

The Liberal retreat will also focus on the issues that will face the government when Parliament resumes next month and are likely to become election fodder a year from now: the influx of irregular asylum seekers crossing the border from the U.S., the growing provincial opposition to the federal carbon pricing plan and the ongoing negotiations with the mercurial Trump administration to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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Canada’s ambassador to Washington, David MacNaughton, will be there to update ministers on the NAFTA talks, from which Canada has been sidelined for several weeks while the United States and Mexico attempt to resolve their differences.

Ministers may also get a briefing on Trudeau’s expectations for a first ministers meeting, likely to be held in late October, aimed at eliminating trade barriers between provinces and territories.

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