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Liberal Candidate Richard Lee Suggests United Nations Should Regulate Internet

Not everyone liked the idea at the first Burnaby South candidates debate.
Richard T. Lee is the Liberal Party's second byelection candidate in the riding of Burnaby South. He attends a news conference in Burnaby, B.C., on Jan. 19, 2019.
Darryl Dyck/CP
Richard T. Lee is the Liberal Party's second byelection candidate in the riding of Burnaby South. He attends a news conference in Burnaby, B.C., on Jan. 19, 2019.

OTTAWA — A federal Liberal candidate suggested Wednesday that the United Nations should establish a worldwide internet regulator to stop the spread of misinformation.

Richard Lee made the comment during the first candidates debate in Burnaby South, the British Columbia byelection race where NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is vying for a crucial seat.

Federally-registered lobbying group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting hosted the event, which organizers billed as a chance for candidates to share their views about Facebook and the platform's impact on the CBC and private media outlets.

"We are in the new era," Lee said, about how the internet has permeated people's lives over the past four decades. Asked if Facebook should have journalistic standards to ensure content hosted on the site is credible and accurate, the former B.C. Liberal MLA said because the company operates worldwide, "I think United Nations should have a body to regulate those activities."

The concept wasn't a hit with everyone in the packed Burnaby, B.C., hotel conference room where the debate took place. Some started to boo.

Lee later defended his point further and explained the UN as the ideal organization for the task "because there are so many countries there." People's Party of Canada candidate Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson disagreed and claimed it's the UN that needs regulation, not Facebook users.

It's not the first time the UN has been suggested as a possible regulatory body for the internet. The idea was previously knocked down by U.S. civil liberties groups and the Obama administration.

Effect of misinformation campaigns 'pretty devastating': Singh

Singh argued more checks and balances are needed for platforms such as Facebook.

"The majority of Canadians rely on some source of multinational web corporation for their news," the NDP leader said. He acknowledged misinformation as an issue that's "problematic."

"The repercussions are pretty devastating," he warned, and referenced the ongoing Special Counsel investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. election as an example for when things go awry.

Conservative candidate Jay Shin said "any attempt to regulate free speech" comes with concerns about censorship.

"I'm not sure how you can regulate [the] internet at that level," Shin said and hedged, "I think we have measures in Canada, with the parliamentarians trying to work together to make sure foreign influence can be limited."

Earlier: NDP MP grills Facebook VP on why Mark Zuckerberg didn't show up to committee

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting executive director Daniel Bernhard called Facebook "a menace to democracy" in an email to HuffPost Canada. The point of the debate was to give candidates an opportunity to "relay their parties' positions on how Canada can catch up" to other countries that have introduced tougher laws, he explained.

Only the four candidates who represent parties currently in the House of Commons were invited. Six people are registered as candidates in the B.C. byelection race, according to Elections Canada.

Former Liberal candidate Karen Wang, who floated the idea of running as an independent candidate after she was dropped from the party last month has not re-registered.

Despite the topic narrowly focused on Facebook, candidates often threaded their responses with party talking points to state opinions about feminism, deficit spending, free speech, and housing.

Feds unroll plan to combat foreign meddling

Last week, the federal government announced new measures to try to prevent foreign interference in Canada's elections. It included $7 million to fund awareness campaigns to educate the public about "online deceptive practices" as well as the establishment of a five-member group of public servants charged with addressing any election-meddling issues occurring during the writ period.

"Our plan has four areas of action – combating foreign interference, strengthening organizational readiness, expecting social media platforms to act, enhancing citizen preparedness," said Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould.

When asked what would be the effectiveness of giving social media companies a list of expectations to meet without implementing punitive measures to spur action, Gould said she expects cooperation after recent changes to elections laws.

"As a starting point, we are looking for a commitment from social media companies to implement changes in Canada that they have already applied in other countries," she said.

Facebook's self-regulation came heavily under fire since the Cambridge Analytica scandal illuminated the social media giant's role in the Brexit referendum.

Changes, notably in the European Union last year, were spurred after the European parliament reformed the data protection law.

The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation took effect on May 25 and introduced fines for companies caught collecting or using a users' personal data without their consent. This gave Facebook a financial impetus to be more transparent with its 380 million European users on how data collected from the platform is used.

Canada has not passed related legislation to introduce similar sanctions for social media platforms.

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