OTTAWA — A parliamentary committee is calling on Canada to hold tech giants accountable for publishing false or misleading information online, especially when it is spread by foreign actors.
That was among 22 recommendations the House ethics committee made in a report released Tuesday after its study into threats posed by foreign interference in Canada's affairs, with a focus on China and Russia.
The committee began looking into foreign interference when the issue was receiving increased media attention and parliamentary scrutiny late last year. Since two other committees were also studying the issue, the ethics committee focused on the impact of allegations in Canada and on Canadian communities, rather than elections.
The spotlight on the issue has grown stronger since then. The Liberal government launched a public inquiry into the issue last month after heavy pressure from opposition parties over allegations the Liberals failed to properly monitor and respond to attempted meddling by Beijing.
China's embassy in Ottawa has insisted Beijing does not meddle in Canadian affairs, saying in recent months that western countries have made "totally groundless" allegations driven by ideological bias.
The recommendations include a call to create a foreign agent registry, "as soon as possible." In March, the federal government began consulting on the creation of such a registry, but has given no timeline for when it will introduce a bill or expects to have it up and running.
On Tuesday, Liberal MP and committee vice-chair Mona Fortier said a registry is the "will of the government."
The report recommends the federal government "hold online platforms accountable for publishing false or misleading information," although the Conservatives on the committee did not support this call.
Bloc Québécois MP and committee vice-chair René Villemure said Canada needs to take a firm position on this issue, similar to the European Union, which has a digital misinformation law that curbs hate speech and propaganda online.
"We'll have to have boxing gloves," Villemure said Tuesday after the committee's report was released.
The government has 60 days to respond, but Fortier said it's a recommendation her party put a lot of effort into.
"At some point companies will have to understand that they're actors and they're not the government," Villemure said.
"What happens online is basically shaping society, and if we're not acting in a decisive manner, they will shape society to the bottom."
Villemure said it's not up to the committee to determine how to hold big tech companies accountable, but he pointed to the European Union as an example.
The European Commission, the 27-nation bloc's executive branch, has recently put its new digital law to the test as it relates to the Israel-Hamas war. Photos and videos of the carnage have flooded social media alongside posts from users pushing false claims and misrepresenting videos from other events.
The commission has asked Meta and TikTok to explain the measures they have taken to reduce the risk of spreading and amplifying terrorist and violent content, hate speech and disinformation. Under the law, the companies could face billions of dollars in fines if they do not do enough to protect users.
The Conservatives say this would endorse censorship online.
"We are also concerned that this may stifle the right of the press to freely report on matters which the government of the day may choose to label as disinformation in need of regulation or censorship," the Tories wrote in a dissenting report.
"Conservatives believe that efforts should instead be focused directly on targeting disinformation sponsored by hostile foreign states, in a manner that does not abridge free expression or freedom of the press."
Conservative MP and committee chair John Brassard was not at Tuesday's press conference.
Michael Barrett, the Tory critic for ethics and accountable government, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has failed to take threats of foreign interference seriously.
"Our elections have been meddled in and Canadians have been subject to harassment and intimidation at the hands of hostile foreign regimes," Barrett said in a statement.
He said Conservatives would shut down illegal foreign police stations "once and for all" and introduce a foreign influence registry.
Villemure said the committee's recommendation is about holding tech companies such as Meta and Google accountable, and has nothing to do with freedom or expression. Meta and Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, but both companies have policies that address misinformation.
Fortier expressed disappointment that the Tories released a dissenting report, saying she thought everyone was on the same page when it came to online platforms.
The report also calls on the government to improve access to declassified information and to direct the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to share relevant information to the public.
Other recommendations include strengthening penalties and rules around national security intelligence leaks, allowing CSIS to directly warn MPs when there's a threat related to foreign interference and updating policy to include foreign interference threats using artificial intelligence.
The committee also wants more training for parliamentarians and public servants around foreign interference, and to strengthen reporting mechanisms for people being intimidated by foreign entities.
It proposed a change to the Criminal Code to create penalties that cover all foreign interference operations, including harassment and intimidation by a foreign state.
Conservatives proposed one recommendation in their dissenting report: to have the government undertake a forensic audit of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, a charity set up to honour the legacy of the former prime minister.
The committee's report includes a section on allegations that $140,000 in donations to the Trudeau Foundation in 2016 and 2017 was linked to a China-led influence campaign. The foundation has returned the money. The committee said it cannot take a definitive position on the case.
"We devoted lots of time to the Trudeau Foundation. The time was put together in order to find out what happened," Villemure said.
"But we did not agree on more than what was written."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press