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Politics Federal plan to protect elections does not include controls on social-media platforms

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould along with the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Ralph Goodale, during a press conference in Ottawa on Jan. 30, 2019.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Ottawa will not impose new obligations on social-media platforms as part of its plan to protect elections from foreign interference – drawing criticism for failing to rein in some of the biggest potential sources of misinformation.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould announced on Wednesday a series of measures to safeguard the fall federal election from hackers and rival countries, including a team of senior bureaucrats that will inform the public if security agencies discover a large-scale threat during the electoral period.

Ms. Gould did not direct social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to take specific actions to stop the spread of disinformation as part of the proposed measures. Instead, she promised to continue discussions and encourage the sites to use all available tools at their disposal to bring greater transparency and integrity to their platforms.

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“There’s an understanding on the part of the social-media platforms that they need to do things better, that they have to re-earn the trust of the people that use their platforms. Over the course of the past couple of years, there have been several incidents that have weakened the trust people have in their platforms,” she said at a news conference.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen said the federal government should have used the opportunity to force these internet giants to better control the content that appears on their sites.

“The social-media outlets that can weaponize a lie on their platform are not required to do anything substantive in this conversation about spreading mis- and disinformation to Canadian voters,” he said.

Stephanie Carvin, an expert on national security at Carleton University, said social-media companies need to take measures to stop the spread of conspiracy theories and violent discourse on their platforms.

Ottawa says a new mechanism to alert Canadians of malicious meddling in the upcoming federal election will have a high 'threshold' to go into effect. Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould says the protocol is aimed at swift action. The Canadian Press

“Why is this fake news being consistently pumped at people?” she said. “I don’t understand why that is acceptable and why their algorithms are programmed this way.”

In a statement, Facebook said that it continues to improve its platform, including with the coming introduction of a database of political advertising that will respond to changes in Canada’s electoral law.

“We know we have more work to do, which means continuing to ramp up our efforts in the months ahead. Facebook is committed to being a force for good in Canada’s democracy,” said Kevin Chan, head of public policy at Facebook Canada.

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Ms. Gould confirmed that a five-member panel of senior bureaucrats will be analyzing threats – as compiled by agencies such as the RCMP, CSIS and the Communications Security Establishment – and inform political parties and the public if they feel that the fairness of the election is compromised. The new team will comprise the clerk of the Privy Council, the national security adviser and the deputy ministers of the Justice, Foreign Affairs and Public Safety departments.

She said the group, which will operate by consensus, will mainly monitor cyberactivities that originate in foreign countries.

“This is not about refereeing the election. This is about alerting Canadians of an incident that jeopardizes their rights to a free and fair election," she said.

Ms. Gould refused to state which countries could attempt to influence the next Canadian election.

“We are a member of the G7, of NATO, of the Five Eyes. It would be naive of us to assume that we are not a target for a cyberattack," Ms. Gould said.

The Conservatives agreed on the need to call on senior bureaucrats to monitor cyberthreats during the election period to remove any partisan involvement in the process.

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“It is very important that we, as the Official Opposition, as well as other democratic players, other parties, my other colleagues included, are part of those processes and that for a truly fair and democratic process, that these decisions do not rest entirely with the Trudeau government," Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie said.

Wesley Wark, a security expert and visiting research professor at the University of Ottawa, called the creation of the team of bureaucrats a “responsible compromise.”

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