Opinion: The battle for social media platforms control begun

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An opinion piece about attempts to take control over social media platforms.

It looks like it is.

Does it have to do with elections coming up across the border and then, eventually, here? Or has the world of social media, with its many pros and cons, and cyberspace in general, come to a point where it can’t continue without stricter regulations? Probably a bit of both.

In the ever-evolving landscape of digital communication, the battle for control over social media platforms has become increasingly pronounced globally, led by all-mighty China, closely followed by Russia and other autocratic states, and picked up by democracies (Germany started off in 2017, followed by the U.K. and Australia in 2021, and the E.U. implementing theirs in 2022).

The recent introduction of Canada’s Bill C-63 and the American push to acquire TikTok underscore the growing state interest in control over cyberspace. These tendencies raise critical questions about national security, privacy, and the influence carried by tech giants and foreign powers, and also touch on the future of freedom of information.

Just like Bill C-18, which was created to help Canadian journalism survive, but resulted in blockage of news on Facebook and Instagram in Canada, the Trudeau government’s Bill C-63 seems indeed well-intended. Also known as the Online Harms Act, it introduces a new legislative and regulatory framework to reduce harmful content on social media platforms.

The act includes stringent penalties and expanded authorities, aimed at combating what are perceived as harmful ideologies and protecting Canadians, especially youth, from a range of online dangers, including hate speech, terrorist content, content that incites violence, child sexual abuse material, non-consensual distribution of intimate images, cyberbullying and inciting self-harm, and non-consensual AI-generated pornography (“deepfakes”).

The proposed document is discussed as a proactive step towards safeguarding the nation’s digital infrastructure and preserving democratic values in the face of emerging threats. The legislation is meant to enhance transparency and accountability among social media companies operating within Canadian borders. By compelling platforms to develop “digital safety plans” and content moderation practices, the bill seeks to mitigate the spread of misinformation and harmful content.

Good plan, right? However, there are some weak spots. First, the introduced changes and proposed penalties are also fraught with the potential for misuse, creating a climate where social media platforms may feel forced to proactively censor Canadians’ speech.

Also, critics of the proposed legislation may argue that measures like Bill C-63 represent another government overreach and threaten free speech online. A valid concern, but it must be weighed against the dangers posed by unregulated social media platforms, including exacerbating disinformation campaigns. I believe responsible regulation is not opposite to free expression but rather essential to ensuring that the digital public space remains open, inclusive and safe for all.

Moreover, the rise of digital authoritarianism poses a direct challenge to democratic practices. Authoritarian regimes exploit social media platforms to follow, censor and suppress dissent, thereby undermining the very principles of democracy. (Something I’ve been watching happening in Russia over the past decade.)

I’m not a fan of how social media has affected our lives and the way the information spreads, creating an often-dangerous environment for misinformation (read mistakes and false facts) and disinformation (read deliberate lies). I believe social media and their influence have a role to play in the current argument about the Estevan downtown revitalization. Yet, I’m also careful about the government’s reach into the private sector as well.

Like the suggested Canadian legislation, the American attempt to acquire TikTok exemplifies the broader geopolitical struggle for control over social media platforms. Recognizing the platform’s immense popularity and influence, the U.S. wanted ByteDance to divest TikTok U.S. within roughly six months for the app to remain available in the country, citing national security concerns. While the proposed deal ultimately fell through, it highlighted the strategic importance of digital assets and the lengths to which nations will go to assert control over them.

At the heart of these tendencies lies a fundamental tension between technological innovation and regulatory oversight. Social media platforms have revolutionized the way we communicate, connect and consume information, yet their unchecked spread has also given rise to multiple challenges, from online radicalization to data exploitation. Now governments face the hard task of balancing the benefits of digital innovation with the responsibility to protect citizens from harm.

After all, Bill C-63 and the American fight for TikTok, to a point, represent two sides of the same coin in the battle for social media control. As nations search for ways to manage the complexities of regulating cyberspace, it is also important that they find ways to balance democratic values, national security and individual freedoms and rights.

We are due for responsible legislation regulating the digital world, which is now often as big of a part of our lives as the offline one, but it’s never an easy job to balance between protecting citizens from emerging threats while also upholding the principles of a free and open society.

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