In the media: Ontario councillors, candidates urge post-election action against ‘nastiness’ on campaign trail

I am quoted, alongside my Brock colleague Karen Louise Smith, in a CBC Hamilton article about the negative role of social media in the harassment of candidates in the recent Ontario municipal election.

Key takeaway: That any prospective politician, whose success depends on being able to reach as many people as possible, would willingly restrict their use of social media during an election because it’s just too toxic, tells you exactly how bad social media has gotten for society. No need to imagine a hypothetical authoritarian government censoring speech: The silencing of voices in these arenas is happening right now.

Blayne Haggart, an associate professor of political science at Brock University in the Niagara area, said hearing about how Hill couldn’t use social media like others “hit a nerve,” given she likely needed them to win.

He said while some people oppose governments regulating social media because it may lead to chilling effects on free speech, it is apparent users are already being silenced because of the toxicity.

“One of the things it shows is the extent to which we as a society have outsourced our main means of communication to, essentially, unaccountable, private, mostly American entities that aren’t interested in promoting good social discourse,” Haggart said.

“Angry sells better than happy … we’ve left ourselves at the mercy of these companies.” …

Haggart said politicians and governments may also want to rely less on social media, and focus on scaling up their own websites and approaching local media outlets.

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Should American Democracy Founder, Don’t Expect Big Tech to Lead the Resistance

This is a shorter version of an article I wrote for cigionline.com back in February. It never got picked up, but I’m pretty happy with the way it holds together. While it is mainly focused on the vulnerability of US social media companies to US governmental pressure, its underlying argument — that social media companies and online platforms are not tools of liberation, but reflections of the interests and vulnerabilities of whoever runs them — speaks directly to the threat posed by Elon Musk’s Twitter to free discourse far beyond the United States. To put it bluntly, it’s been an enormous mistake for non-Americans to entrust huge swaths of their communication infrastructure to unaccountable (to non-Americans) American (and now Chinese) corporations. These aren’t global platforms; they’re American and Chinese platforms with global reach. That difference matters, and it’s time we started analyzing them in those terms.

A brief housekeeping note: I’ve deactivated my Twitter account and have no current plans to join any other social media platforms. Though if anyone can point me toward a decent, sane social media space, I’d be much obliged. In the meantime, I’m probably going to be redirecting my public-writing energies here.

Fears of authoritarianism have a particular resonance in internet-governance circles. The spectre of an authoritarian China and Chinese companies controlling the internet — think the 5G debate — has haunted discussions of platform regulation for years now. Charges of “digital authoritarianism” continue to dog attempts to regulate online companies, such as Germany’s NetzDG law.

But what would happen if the problem government were the United States?

After all, it’s practically impossible these days to find a serious thinker who believes that US democracy is in fine shape.

Not only did the Jan 6, 2021, insurrection end a two-century tradition of peaceful transitions of power, it occurred alongside the Republican Party’s ongoing descent into illiberalism and authoritarianism.

Digital rights activists are quick to call on tech companies to resist authoritarian governments, but what happens if the authoritarians are inside the house?

I wouldn’t count on these companies to have our backs. The problem comes down to the nature of global power and the relationship between companies and the state.

Though we might think of the internet as a global network and the US as a declining power, the United States possesses what political scientists call structural power – the ability to shape the rules and norms under which others operate – over online activity. What happens in the United States matters for the internet more than what happens elsewhere.

For example, January 2022 marked the tenth anniversary of the successful Stop Online Piracy Act protests. These protests targeted a pair of US copyright bills that critics claimed would “break the internet.”

As Paul Keller, who was involved in that protest, notes, these bills would have had extraterritorial effects due in part to the size of the US market. The giants that dominate the online world, “have incentives to comply with rules that apply in sufficiently large markets, which means that regulatory regimes are often exported well beyond the jurisdictions where they have been originally enacted.”

The United States also uses its market power to convince other countries to implement its preferred internet governance policies via trade agreements — nobody wants to get shut out of the world’s richest market.

What happens in the United States matters to the world. There is little reason to believe that an autocratic or illiberal United States wouldn’t reshape the internet.

The investigations sparked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen offers a stark reminder that these (American) companies are uniquely responsive to American legislators. Consider whose calls Facebook/Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg returns. Hint: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s not on the list.

Or how the role of an American social media company in an actual genocide (albeit outside the United States) wasn’t enough to trigger sustained calls for reforms from the US Congress, the only body with the power to regulate effectively these companies.

The European Union is attempting to challenge the American status quo by using the size of its market to impose itself as a regulatory superpower through laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation, which regulates the European market in personal data and is emerging as a global standard.

But it lacks globally dominant companies. In contrast, US firms like Amazon and Google allow the United States to exert structural power over online activities, indirectly but no less powerfully than more-direct legislation or treaties.

US tech companies influence US economic policy, while in turn creating an economic – US government contracts are worth billions — and political dependence on the United States. Communication scholars Shawn Powers and Michael Jablonski refer to this symbiotic tech-state relationship as the “information-industrial complex.”

To be clear: these tight nationalist links aren’t authoritarian; they’re normal politics. But that doesn’t help us avoid the conclusion that appeals to international human rights law are unlikely to help them resist an American autocratic turn.

American companies remain uniquely vulnerable to influence by their home country. They can’t abandon the US market, and they depend on the US government to open foreign markets via instruments such as trade agreements.

They may be powerful, but powerful states have proven more than capable of forcing even behemoths like Google to do speech-limiting things they wouldn’t otherwise do, such as copyright and trademark enforcement. Ultimately, the definition, nature and limit of tech companies’ commitment to free speech and human rights are set in the United States.

Whether the United States goes full autocrat or remains a flawed democracy, tech companies will do what companies have always done: with the support of the US government, they will attempt to dominate foreign markets to meet their material interests and create an international economy conducive to American profits and values — whatever those may be. After all, there are always ways to make money under authoritarianism. Google won’t save us.

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The Roaring Twenties

In early July, for our wedding anniversary, we spent eight days in New York. This was our first vacation since 2019, and pretty much our first time we’d travelled more than 200 km from our house since the pandemic began. (Excepting a solo visit to my parents in early May.)

New York, as always, was a delight. We saw some great plays – including two, American Buffalo (with Laurence Fishburne and Guy Fleegman himself, Sam Rockwell – both excellent) and Moulin Rouge (which, although it gave us lots to talk about, was actually very disappointing – I might write about it later) – that I had purchased tickets to see in March 2020. We managed to score tickets for a fantastic Richard III in Central Park. We wandered the galleries in Chelsea and the Lower East Side. I got to see the Mets lose to the Marlins in 10 innings.

On a more-sour note, the Rogers outage was more than a casual annoyance. We were intermittently unable to use, alternately, our credit card and our debit card to pay for trifles such as a metro card and food. Plus, there’s nothing like losing your internet service to make you realize how much you’ve come to depend on your phone’s GPS to get around. But that was only one day, and any day that ends with pizza at John’s of Bleecker Street can only be judged an overall good time.

We also managed to avoid catching COVID, no small accomplishment given that New York City, like Ontario, is in the middle of yet another wave. New Yorkers, like Canadians, have mostly stopped trying to protect themselves and others from the pandemic. Restaurants are open for indoor dining, galleries like the MoMa are packed to capacity, and hardly anybody is wearing masks in indoor or crowded settings. The main exception here being service workers, almost all of whom we saw were masked up.

For our part, we always masked when we were indoors, except for our hotel room, where we ran a HEPA air purifier constantly. Instead of flying or taking the train, we drove the seven hours to New York, parking across the river in New Jersey (for less than the cost of a single plane ticket!) and taking the ferry into town. Between the novelty of our means of entry to Manhattan, the scenic drive and being able to avoid the unpleasantness of air travel, I highly recommend driving to New York over flying, if you can.

We only ate outdoors – not a great sacrifice in the summer, since New York restaurants have done their very best to make curbside dining not only possible, but enjoyable. (Toronto, take note.) We spent a lot of time hanging out in Tompkins Square and Washington Square Parks reading and dog-watching, always part of our New York trips. We marked our anniversary with an exquisite, unforgettable meal in the Musket Room’s courtyard herb garden/patio.

We masked outside as well, any time we were in a crowd, which we treated as any more than a few people on a block. And it really wasn’t a burden, especially given that, well, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic.

I don’t know the precise percentage of New Yorkers who were masked, and it sometimes depended on the venue: American Buffalo still had a mask mandate in place, so pretty much everyone was masked, but most of the (younger) Moulin Rouge crowd wasn’t, hardly anyone at the Mets game, and of course everyone eating indoors was maskless. Maybe 5% overall?

I can say that the number was just high enough to make you think you weren’t crazy for wearing a mask and treating the pandemic for the ongoing crisis that it is.

The Roaring 2020s

Taking a step back, it’s an odd mix: our rejuvenating vacation, against the backdrop of a deadly and debilitating global pandemic and a population – including their government and institutions – that has failed to rise to the task of addressing it. We had a great time, in a city in which individuals have been left to fend for themselves while most go about their lives, presumably having just as good a time as we were, but unconcerned with the pernicious and potentially deadly effects of their actions on themselves and others. And in the background, a deadly reckoning looms, of collapsing health systems, debilitating Long COVID, and persistently and needlessly high death rates.

Is this what the 1920s were like?

That tragic decade was bookended by World War I and the spectre of the murderous Nazi regime and World War II, the two wars usually seen as linked. The Roaring 20s as euphoric interregnum.

History may not repeat exactly, but it sometimes rhymes. In this case, we have the initial 2020 COVID outbreak and global, comprehensive (if insufficient) actions to deal with it. However, despite all the “welcome back” and “we missed you” signs throughout New York, the pandemic is not over. Infection, hospitalization and death rates continue their grim march, abetted by an attitude that is, at its heart, a denial of reality.

The same goes for Canada and elsewhere, but Americans are also dealing with political trauma. Those who have yet to succumb to the Republican Party’s far-right anti-democratic extremism are still recovering from the Trump presidency’s constitutional depravities.

It’s surely no coincidence that the Public Theatre, which is responsible for Central Park’s iconic annual Shakespeare in the Park chose this year to mount Richard III, a tale of an amoral, murderous king’s rise and (eventual) defenestration. In one scene, King Richard, played by an almost-too-majestic Danai Gurira (aka Okoye from Black Panther), attempts to demonstrate his virtuousness by holding a Bible in exactly the same awkward manner that Trump did for his “violence-enabled photo op” during the 2020 Black Lives Matters protests.

Richard III’s parallels with Trump are undeniable: the indignities Richard puts his court through as they still profess loyalty to this monster uncomfortably parallels the Republican Party’s fatal embrace of Trump and Trumpism.

However, from the vantage point of 2022, the play’s ending – where the forces of good rise up and overthrow the tyrant – reads more like revenge fantasy than anything else. It seems an unearned ending for a country where anti-democratic forces have successfully turned their Supreme Court from an institution of laws to one of far-right Republican politics, where Democrats face the loss of power thanks to a gerrymandered House, a Senate hamstrung by the filibuster and a system that gives 40% of Americans control over 60% of sets, and a presidency shaped by the undemocratic Electoral College. Add to that a Democratic Party that seems unequal to the monumental task of staving off Republican authoritarianism, and it’s hard to see the current moment as anything more than a brief break in the storm that is already starting to engulf the American Republic.

And all of this is taking place against the ultimate backdrop of the climate emergency, on which the US Senate has effectively prevented the United States from addressing it in any meaningful way.

Cognitive dissonance: The plague of the 2020s

In all three cases, governments, abetted by their populations, have been unwilling and/or unable to take the steps necessary to stave off disaster. Cognitive dissonance, not COVID, is the defining disease of the early 2020s. The result of inaction and inattention will almost certainly – has already been – needless suffering, misery and death.

Actually fixing the problems of climate change, COVID and a collapsing democracy, of course, require collective action. Unfortunately, very little of what’s happened over the past two years suggests that either the United States or the rest of the world, governments or any other organizations, have the will to take the actions needed to stave off or mitigate disaster.

Early in the pandemic, opeds looking for lessons Albert Camus’ 1947 masterwork The Plague were something of a cottage industry. The Plague isn’t talked about so much these days – most likely because of the collective decision to ignore as much as possible the ongoing pandemic – but its lessons are more relevant today than ever.

Camus intended The Plague as an allegory for life under fascism. He was concerned with the question of how we, as individuals, as people, should act when we find ourselves – as the French did under the Nazis in the 1940s – living under an inhumane, anti-democratic, fascist government. Our responsibility, he suggested, is the same as when dealing with a plague, or pandemic, whether the government is working for or against the public interest. Our responsibility is always to the truth of the situation, no matter how uncomfortable.

Most importantly, he argued, we all have a responsibility to do our best not to spread the virus, whether it be fascist ideology and action or biological. This responsibility is not dependent on government decrees.

In the case of our current pandemic, even though governments have effectively declared the pandemic over, our fundamental moral and ethical obligations to each other have not changed: don’t spread the virus. Get vaccinated. Wear a mask. And, where you can, work to change public policy to be less callous toward human life.

Dealing with the collapse of democracy in the United States – to say nothing of the climate emergency – will be more difficult, and Canada won’t be spared the difficult individual and collective decisions that we will have to take in self-defense. In this sense, the individual and collective reckonings around the end of legalized abortion access in the US are a preview of what’s to come. But our obligations to ourselves and each other will stay the same, even in the absence of the hope of meaningful systemic action.

And so we wear masks, while on vacation, in New York, in our calm before the storm.

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Submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, Study on Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act

I was invited to appear before the Canadian Heritage Committee for their study of Bill C-11. While my schedule didn’t allow it, the Committee permitted me to provide a written submission, reprinted below.

I would like to thank the Committee for the invitation and opportunity to submit a brief on Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act. I am an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brock University. I am also a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, and an Associate Senior Fellow at the Kate Hamburger Kölleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. My research focuses on the governance of the knowledge economy, including platform regulation. I am the author of several journal articles and the co-editor of two edited volumes on the topic, as well as the author of a book on Canadian and global digital copyright policy.

I wish to focus my comments on Bill C-11’s discoverability requirements, which are designed to promote Canadian content and the work of Canadian creators. The issue of discoverability may not have attracted the same level of attention as other parts of the bill, it represents a significant advance in Canada’s approach to regulating the global content intermediaries that have emerged as significant, self-interested, and unaccountable regulators in and of themselves.

Not a free market: Platforms are already regulators

The debate over Canadian cultural regulation used to involve two sharply defined positions. On the one side were those who argued that Canadian cultural production should be shaped primarily by the market and the demand for these “products.” The other side, which has been Canadian policy for the past several decades, argued that Canadian culture is more than just a commodity government intervention is necessary in order to help it flourish (Haggart and Tusikov 2022).

Online content intermediaries have complicated this debate. The emergence of online content intermediaries, or platforms, presents a direct challenge to Canadian policy autonomy. “Platform” is a slippery concept whose meaning changes depending on who is using the term, but one of its defining characteristics is that they are two-sided markets (or more) that bring together, for example, creators, users/consumers and advertisers (Gillespie 2010). This characteristic helps to give these companies immense powers to set the rules and regulations governing what happens on their platform: you either accept their rules or you stay home.

This power means that these platforms – when unchallenged by governments – can exercise regulatory and policy authority in much the same way as governments.

Platforms don’t exist in the market: in large part they aim to be the market, and the regulator. What this means is that the current alternative to government policy is not to “let the market decide,” but to turn Canadian cultural policy over to the whims and interests of foreign, largely American, corporations (plus China’s TikTok).

Platforms already regulate discoverability, and discriminate against creators

It is against this background that we should assess the fear that government requirements will change how, for example, YouTube’s algorithm would operate when it comes to surfacing content. YouTube, and every platform, already has its own rules for discoverability. Most importantly, these privatized discoverability regulations are not designed simply to surface the most popular content, or the content that you, the viewer/reader, is most interested in. These companies, understandably, design their platform in ways that they believe will maximize their own interests, however they decide to define them. This self-interestedness goes far beyond simply maximizing profits, in ways that actively disadvantage certain groups while promoting others. For example, YouTube has long been criticized for allegedly demonetizing LGBTQ content (Romano 2019). I say “allegedly,” because the fact that YouTube does not publicize its ranking criteria – an example of secret regulation – means that researchers have to reverse-engineer its algorithm to understand how it works.

As University of California, Santa Cruz sociologist Julian Rodriguez, argues, YouTube “privately discriminates against LGBTQ users creating content about queer sex education, lesbian sexuality, and transgender identity—topics in conflict with advertising and community guidelines. YouTube’s discriminatory practices (closely tied to automated algorithms) include demonetization, age restriction, video deletion, account termination, and harassment facilitation” (Rodriguez 2022, 1).

Government intervention with respect to discoverability should not be seen as upending a neutral marketplace. Platforms’ existing regulations already reward some creators and punish others. Rather, the choice before Parliament is what criteria do we want to determine discoverability? And who should be allowed to make those decisions?

Platforms’ already-existing secret, unaccountable regulation

Platform regulatory power, which is currently shaping discoverability and platform functioning generally, is wielded in opaque and unaccountable ways such that even those creators who currently enjoy success on a platform remain vulnerable to the platform’s self-interested whims, since the company running the platform can change the rules of the game any time it wants.

Unlike with government regulation, there are very few meaningful ways for ordinary citizens or creators to challenge platforms’ policy decisions. Especially in the absence of meaningful market competition – and the network effects associated with platforms effectively works to minimize such competition.

In contrast, for all the complaints about the CRTC’s work as a regulatory body – and I take no position on this issue – almost by definition it is more accountable than the global platforms that currently regulate this space.

Vague future outcomes and inadequate consultation

As welcome as the government’s tentative forays into platform regulation may be in principle, the vagueness of much of the conversation around the bill overall, including the need to wait for policy directives from the government, introduces uncertainty about how these powers will be used in practice.

Two final points. First, in the run-up to Bill C-11, as well as the government’s suite of current and proposed legislation focused on online activity, the government has missed a golden opportunity to educate Canadians about the promises and perils of government online regulation. The challenges raised by the online sphere may not be novel – issues like cultural protection and how to deal with hate speech are perennial problems – but they do pose their own issues. The government’s muddled approach to explaining both C-11 and its predecessor, Bill C-10, has not been helpful, to say the least.

Other countries have dealt more deftly with this problem than Canada. Brazil’s landmark Marco Civil da Internet legislation, which created a “Bill of Rights” for the internet, was preceded by a two-stage consultation. The first stage involved education Brazilians about the key issues, seeking their (informed) feedback. Only then did the government craft a proposal, which they then sent out for consultation (Haggart and Tusikov 2018).

This process allowed Brazilians to get comfortable with and better understand the idea of online regulation, while also serving to telegraph the government’s position on these issues. While I believe that fears that this bill, and the rest of the government’s digital agenda, will lead to the rise of authoritarianism and a loss of “freedom” are vastly, vastly overblown, more extensive consultations and education would likely have helped to help Canadians better understand what the government understands and intends by platform regulation, and (in this case) discoverability.

Second, I am concerned that the government has missed an opportunity to more deeply engage with the fundamental question underlying this debate, namely, what is Canadian culture? I strongly welcome Bill C-11’s focus on promoting Indigenous and French culture – themselves a strong justification for a focus on discoverability.

But if this bill marks the culmination of the government’s reconsideration of how to protect and promote Canadian culture in the 21st century, it would be a huge missed opportunity. For example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Triple J Unearthed online radio station and platform (https://www.abc.net.au/triplejunearthed/) provides a comprehensive platform for emerging Australian musicians – including Indigenous artists – to upload and share their music, supported actively by the ABC in terms of promotion on its terrestrial and online stations, concerts and contests. Triple J Unearthed leverages the potential of the Web in a way that has a direct and positive effect on Australian artists and culture. Such a site could arguably have as much an effect on aspiring Canadian musicians as this bill’s discoverability rules.

Updating the Broadcasting Act for our new reality makes sense – policy objectives should drive tech, not the other way around – but in attempting to stick so close to the model as it’s always existed, we risk foreclosing new ways to think about Canadian culture.

It is also understandable that the government would want to rely on the CRTC as a lead regulator in this area – creating new bureaucracies is challenging, to say the least, especially absent the wider conversation regarding how we, as Canadians, should think about Canadian culture two decades into the 21st century. It’s also understandable that it should be given some leeway to interpret its mandate: regulatory bodies require some room for interpretation, as not every contingency can be captured in legislation.

On this point, however, much will depend on the government’s directives, and on how the CRTC decides to interpret these directives.

I thank you for your time.

References

Gillespie, Tarleton. 2010. ‘The Politics of “Platforms”’. New Media & Society 12 (3): 347–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809342738.

Haggart, Blayne, and Natasha Tusikov. 2018. ‘Implementing a National Data Strategy: The Need for Innovative Public Consultations’. 142. Centre for International Governance Innovation. https://www.cigionline.org/publications/implementing-national-data-strategy-need-innovative-public-consultations.

———. 2022. ‘Battling the Myths of Internet Regulation as We Consider the Next Iteration of Bill C-10’. Centre for International Governance Innovation, 17 January 2022. https://www.cigionline.org/articles/battling-the-myths-of-internet-regulation-as-we-consider-the-next-iteration-of-bill-c-10/.

Rodriguez, Julian A. 2022. ‘LGBTQ Incorporated: YouTube and the Management of Diversity’. Journal of Homosexuality 0 (0): 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2022.2042664.

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