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Jim Balsillie urges MPs to regulate ‘surveillance capitalism’ of Facebook and Google

Jim Balsillie, Council of Canadian Innovators, appears as a witness at a Commons privacy and ethics committee in Ottawa on May 10, 2018, hearing witnesses on the breach of personal information involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A group representing Canada’s tech CEOs told MPs that Facebook and Google represent a new form of “surveillance capitalism” and called for European-style regulation over the U.S.-based web giants.

Jim Balsillie, chair of the Council of Canadian Innovators, told MPs that immediate government action is required to protect Canada’s commercial interests and the privacy of individuals.

“Facebook and Google are companies built exclusively on the principle of mass surveillance,” he said. “Their revenues come from collecting and selling all sorts of personal data, in some instances without a moral conscience.”

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Mr. Balsillie referred to Australian media reports that found Facebook told advertisers it could identify whether young people felt stressed or “worthless” by monitoring their posts and photos.

Mr. Balsillie, the former chair and co-CEO of Research in Motion (now BlackBerry Ltd.) made the comments while sharing a panel with Colin McKay, Google Canada’s head of public policy and government relations.

The two men appeared before the House of Commons’ access to information, privacy and ethics’ committee, which is looking into the misuse of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm that improperly obtained the data of 87 million Facebook users.

The committee is examining that specific issue, but also larger questions of whether Canada’s privacy and election laws should be updated to address the potential misuse of personal data by online companies and political parties.

Mr. McKay challenged Mr. Balsillie’s characterization of Google and told MPs that Google’s products “prioritize user privacy” and the company promotes a service called MyAccount that lets users manage their privacy and security.

“It’s hard to keep data private if it is not secure, which is part of the reason why we have built such a strong security team at Google,” he said. “It’s also the reason why we have not focused only on the security of Google and our services, but have helped the entire internet industry bolster security.”

Mr. Balisillie said Canada should implement new regulations along the lines of those coming into effect in the European Union that are aimed at improving privacy protection and controlling how large data sets are used.

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“Canadians should own and control their data,” he said. “Canadians need to be formally empowered in this new type of economy because it affects our entire lives.”

Earlier in the day, the committee heard from Elizabeth Denham, the United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner who is investigating the Cambridge Analytica issue, as well as Michael McEvoy, British Columbia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, who is also conducting a related investigation.

Ms. Denham said she has not yet received full co-operation from the Victoria-based firm AggregateIQ, which performed contract work for Cambridge Analytica’s parent company.

She said a recent letter from AggregateIQ “opens the door” to co-operating with her office, but that she has yet to see concrete steps to support that pledge.

Ms. Denham, a Canadian and a former B.C. privacy commissioner, said her U.K. office has much stronger enforcement powers than Canada’s privacy commissioner and that British lawmakers are about to grant her office additional powers to help her with the investigation.

“The Canadian privacy commissioner’s powers have fallen behind the rest of the world,” she said.

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Many witnesses have pointed out that Canadian political parties are currently exempt from privacy laws and that situation should be addressed. Mr. McEvoy noted that B.C. is an exception and that subjecting parties to privacy legislation has worked well since 2004.

Ms. Denham said election and privacy laws generally are not keeping up with how political parties are using data to target voters.

“Just because people are arguing that these are more effective ways to reach potential voters and supporters doesn’t make it right,” she said. “We need to look at whether there are some red lines here for the kind of backroom, back-office data mining and profiling that is possible in today’s world, and now’s the time to do it.”

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