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B.C.’s deal with social media giants ‘probably’ represents ‘best outcome’: expert

Brandon Laur, CEO of The White Hatter, acknowledges problems with agreement’s impact on local news
Digital literacy and Internet safety education specialist Brandon Laur, CEO of The White Hatter says B.C.’s agreement with four big social media around preventing online harm and sharing information about wildfires “probably” represents the “best outcome.” But he also acknowledges problems with the future role of social media companies in sharing information about wildfires, given that Meta, the parent company of Facebook, continues to block Canadian news. (AP Photo/Paula Ulichney)

A digital expert says B.C.’s recent agreement with Meta and other digital companies around protecting youth online “probably” represents the “best outcome.” But parts of the political opposition see the agreement as a “backroom deal” at the expense of local news.

Brandon Laur, CEO of The White Hatter, a digital literacy and internet safety education specialist company, said last week’s agreement with the digital media companies to speed up the removal of “non-consensual intimate images” — so-called ‘revenge porn’ — allows government to see results faster.

“Working together is probably better than ‘I am going to sue,’” he said. “How long did it take us to see changes with tobacco and now with pharmaceutical companies? That has taken years to deal with through the courts.”

The agreement with X, formerly known as Twitter, Google, TikTok, Snap and Meta, the parent company of Facebook, emerged out of B.C.’s new online action table. The action table itself emerged after the B.C. NDP had placed Bill 12 — the Public Health Accountability and Cost Recovery Act — on hold. The bill — which died last week with the end of the legislative session — would have allowed government to sue social media giants and other “big faceless corporations” for “hurting people.”

Government had modelled the law after legislation with which B.C. had sued tobacco companies, then later pharmaceutical companies.

But Laur pointed to legal experts, who have expressed skepticism about the ability to prove harm from social media.

“There are some predictable outcomes from that (consuming drugs), but measuring and quantifying harm from social media, that is way more difficult.”

The agreement also speaks of government exploring “opportunities for technology companies to help amplify official information for people in emergency situations like wildfires.”

Meta, which blocks Canadian news from Facebook and Instagram because of the federal Online News Act, has also agreed to the “dissemination of reputable information available from official sources, such as government agencies and emergency services” in case of wildfires. That agreement includes what government calls “advertising support” from Meta and the other companies to amplify “awareness of safety resources” throughout the wildfire season.

RELATED: Trudeau points to fire fight, says Meta news ban degrades safety during B.C. stop

B.C. United’s Peter Milobar, MLA for Kamloops-North Thompson, an area that requently experiences wildfires, questioned that aspect of the agreement.

“This Premier, however, decided to sell out the local news industry to Facebook in a backroom deal in exchange for government advertising and a promise by Facebook to amplify NDP propaganda, conveniently in the months leading up to the provincial election,” Milobar said.

That has real-world implications, because Meta’s on-going ban on local news continues to deny British Columbians, including current evacuees in the Fort Nelson area, access to local news posted via social media.

Eby has in the past complained about Meta’s block of local news and urged the company to re-consider.

Attorney-General Niki Sharma, meanwhile, defended the agreement against Milobar’s charges involving Facebook.

“We’re doing that for people that are facing really stressful wildfire situations,” she said. “When they need information — the Premier has been clear on this — we expect those platforms to deliver that information straight from the ministry. We’re going to continue to do that work. We’re very proud of it.”

Laur acknowledged problems with Meta’s role in amplifying government messages, when it blocks out local news.

“Yes, it does make it that the government is the sole messenger,” Laur said. “That’s the only story that goes through. If there (are) any competing challenges to the (government) messaging…those contents and messages can’t be shared.”

But Laur also tried to put things into perspective.

“I do see that there is a challenge, but on a balance of probability in terms of mitigating harm, I think getting warnings out to people is more important, especially evacuation orders, than any disagreements about government messaging that there might be.”

The online action table will meet again in the fall and government has said that it always has the option of re-tabling the legislation, assuming re-election.

Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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