Like a lot of people, Dawn has concerns with how social media appears to be making people angry and more divided. Others, like Soubhi, feel differently and think people should be free to say and do what they like online.
Fauzia takes a different view: she thinks it would be better if everyone had to use their real name online. Meanwhile, Junior wants to know why people can get away with things online that would get you in serious trouble anywhere else.
These people all have one thing in common. They answered an invitation, inviting them to do something about their concerns.
The Citizens’ Assemblies on Democratic Expression and two parallel Commissions were established in 2020. They have been quiet motors propelling new thinking about how Canada effectively regulates social media platforms and other online service providers. Their recently released capstone report calls on the federal government to act immediately in order to protect Canadians online.
The Assemblies were created to help establish a blueprint the government could follow. Rather than a focus group gathered to elicit top-of-mind public opinion, the Assemblies were intended to give 90 randomly selected Canadians, representing every corner of the country and working in both official languages, a chance to learn about and grapple with the issues.
They were tasked with addressing ‘online harm’ and ‘disinformation,’ terms that can seem vague, but which include things most Canadians overwhelmingly agree need to be addressed: child predators, fraudsters, foreign campaigns to divide Canadians and sow disinformation and serial harassers – especially of women, and racialized and LGBTQ2I persons.
The first Assembly took place in the early days of the pandemic and included no fewer than 32 online meetings. The second, just before Omicron struck, combined online meetings with four days in Ottawa. A final capstone Assembly to review and synthesize the work of the prior meetings, commissions and a federal expert panel, took place this past June.
The Assemblies heard from academics, industry representatives, public officials — and perhaps, most importantly, from one another. This isn’t always possible in an online echo chamber, but it was a central feature of each meeting.
So, what do Canadians want?
According to their final report, they first want to see existing laws better enforced, for governments to crack down hard on the most egregious online harms, especially those that target children and vulnerable communities.
They want to severely limit the use of bots and, at a minimum, require mandatory labelling and specific rules that restrict the ability of automated systems to share information and interact with real users.
Critically, they want Canadians themselves to have better tools to control what they see and don’t see online. To this end, they want to own their data and be able to move this data between platforms seamlessly – a move that would immediately foster greater competition among service providers. They also believe a voluntary system of cross-platform verified users would increase user accountability.
They also want platforms to make it possible to validate news sources and they believe government should continue to invest in high-quality journalism.
Added to this, they want real oversight. When things go wrong, they want a third party that can hear their complaint and provide a resolution. They also call for a regulator to develop and enforce new standards.
Much like other products that are offered to the public, such as packaged foods, cars or cosmetics, Assembly members believe that the onus to demonstrate that digital services are safe must fall on the powerful companies providing the services. This would require conducting regular risk assessments and disclosing how the algorithms powering these services actually work.
In short, Canadians want more control, more transparency and more accountability.
What the Assemblies demonstrate is that while members like Dawn, Soubhi, Fauzia and Junior may hold different views, those views are not irreconcilable. As a society, we might not be as polarized as social media makes us think. Given the time, information and opportunity, members of the public can find their way towards common ground.
Their findings provide government with a path worth following.
By Peter MacLeod
About the author:
Peter MacLeod was the Chair of the Canadian Citizens’ Assemblies on Democratic Expression.