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Facebook whistleblower calls Canada's online harms bill 'one of the best proposed today'

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Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who blew the whistle on the tech company by accusing it of prioritizing profit over public safety, says Canada's new online harms legislation isn't just good, it's "one of the best bills that has been proposed today."

In an interview with CTV News Channel's Power Play host Vassy Kapelos on Tuesday, Haugen said the new bill is a meaningful step toward holding tech companies accountable for neglecting user well-being, especially among children and teens.

"We know the platforms know this is a problem but different platforms are taking different levels of effort to try to deal with this," Haugen told Kapelos. "And that's why we need laws like the Canadian online safety bill, to make sure Canadian researchers can ask questions (like) is the platform your kid is spending time on doing everything they can to keep that kid safe?"

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government on Monday tabled its long-awaited legislation with the aim of better protecting Canadians, and particularly youth, against online harms.

In addition to targeting harmful content shared by users – such as intimate images shared without consent and anything used to bully or sexually victimize a child – the bill introduces new responsibilities for online platforms, as well as a regulatory framework for enforcing those responsibilities.

"It's less a bill that says, 'You must take down every last dangerous thing,'" Haugen said. "It's a bill that says, 'If you know there are risks, you have to tell us, you can't lie about it, and you need to tell us what your plan is for mitigating those risks, and you need to give us enough information that we know you're making progress.'"

Haugen took a job as a data engineer at Facebook in 2019, saying she hoped to generate positive change from within the company.

In 2021, she released documents to the Wall Street Journal that exposed how much Facebook knew about the harms it was causing, and how it chose not to take measures to protect users from those harms. That same year, she testified to a U.S. Senate panel about how Facebook's products harm children, stoke division and weaken democracy, saying the company’s leadership knew how to make the platforms safer but refused to make the necessary changes because "they have put their immense profits before people."

One of the rules introduced by Canada's new online harms bill is broadly defined as the "duty to act responsibly." It puts the onus on companies to reduce exposure to harmful content by "continuously" assessing risks, developing mitigation strategies and giving users better tools for flagging harmful content.

The bill would also require platforms to be more transparent about measures they're taking to protect users from harmful content and to share data with researchers. In order to enforce new rules for social media companies, the bill would lead to the creation of a new "digital safety commission" comprised of five members appointed by cabinet.

This commission would have the power to order the removal within 24 hours of certain types of non-consensual and exploitative content. Cabinet would also appoint a new "independent" ombudsperson to advocate on behalf of users.

Haugen said the bill takes a "sensible, moderate" approach to internet safety that is less about policing the internet than carving out legal rights for the public.

"It's not about fear mongering, it's not about censoring people, it's about making sure we can balance the profit motive with the safety of our families, the safety of our communities," she said.

"If we don't have legal rights to get basic data on those products or a legal mandate like the online safety bill around a duty of care for kids, those platforms can do whatever they want and they know we'll never know the truth for sure."

Researchers have linked spikes in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harming behaviours, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts with Instagram use.

While the damage suffered by some users can never be undone, Haugen said it's not too late for legislation to have a measurable impact on the harms social media platforms could inflict in the future.

She explained that while social media companies don't seem motivated to invest in safety for the sake of preventing harm, they do appear to be motivated by fear of consequences.

Now that the European Union has launched its Digital Services Act, the U.K. has passed its online safety act and Canada has tabled its own bill, Haugen said companies are beginning to realize they can't ignore the problem any longer.

And amid this shifting tide, Haugen said Canada has an opportunity to emerge as a global leader in online safety legislation.

"I hope Canada takes a step forward, because (it) can help organize other countries that might otherwise not be able to put together such an effective piece of legislation to pass similar laws in their own countries," she said. "That's how we'll really get an equitable, linguistically diverse, safe online ecosystem of social media platforms."

Watch the full interview with Frances Haugen at the top of the article. 

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