Stop prioritizing the profits of Big Tech over the mental and physical health of our kids

Article originally published in The Star

Looking ahead to 2023 can seem bleak. One bright spot, however, is the opportunity Canada has in the upcoming year when it comes to passing legislation aimed at putting the safety and well-being of Canadians — especially children — ahead of Big Tech’s bottom line.

For the most part, the public debate on how best to improve online safety and minimize the harms experienced online has been focused on the regulation of content, with design of algorithmic considerations taking a back seat. This is silly. The crux of the issue isn’t one of individual bad actors posting individual bad pieces of content; it is the systems and incentives that exist within the platforms’ structures, allowing for the harmful content to be created and disseminated at a much wider scale to begin with.

After engaging in consultations with stakeholders and a myriad of experts, the federal government has stated they are explicitly moving away from an approach focused on content takedowns, and more toward a systems approach, bringing Canada far more in line with peer jurisdictions like the United Kingdom and the European Union. Both the U.K. and the EU have developed an approach to online harms that focuses on the systemic incentives that lead to the creation, dissemination and amplification of harmful content, in addition to requiring much more transparency from the platforms in terms of how their algorithms work.

As Canada moves forward, it is imperative that we keep a few things in mind. First and foremost, we must move past the false dichotomy presented by Conservatives — as well as many in the Canadian commentariat — that any regulation or governance structure imposed on Big Tech is somehow a kind of policy version of “Sophie’s Choice” between freedom of expression and safety. This is a blatantly incorrect framing.

Regulating private, for-profit companies in a manner that subjects them to the same standards as any other company that provides consumer-facing products is not stifling free speech. It is ensuring that platforms have to consider the impact of the products that they build and provide to Canadians, particularly as it pertains to children. Serving up Canadian kids algorithmically targeted harmful content, like self-harm or eating disorder posts, should enrage all 338 members of Parliament. We have effectively been prioritizing the profits of Big Tech over the mental and physical health of our kids. That must change.

All other consumer-facing products are subject to the duty to act responsibly, which means companies must consider the risks of their products, and then demonstrate that there have been steps taken to mitigate those risks. Continuing to exempt tech and social media platforms from this standard makes no legal or moral sense.

Secondly, we need to remain clear-eyed about what any governance framework can and can’t do. Subjecting Big Tech to the same standard as other companies who offer products to Canadians will not mean that nobody will ever again have a negative experience using an online platform. It means that we have taken active steps to mitigate some of those harms, effectively employing a harm-reduction strategy.

Lastly, it is imperative that any direct involvement of police or national security forces to online harms must be kept to a minimum. The inclusion of measures such as mandatory reporting without production orders to law enforcement or national security agencies will raise significant and legitimate concerns with respect to privacy and freedom of expression. We can’t police our way through the systemic issues that plague Big Tech.

For far too long, Big Tech’s lobbying and PR efforts have essentially resulted in these companies being given a free pass when it comes to the harms inflicted on our society. Let’s hope 2023 is the year Canada puts an end to that.

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