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Rob Shaw: Eby doesn't understand tech giants answer to no one

B.C. government forced to shift strategy in tackling social media's dark side
B.C. Premier David Eby appears optimistic his government can work with global tech giants to change their harmful ways.

Premier David Eby said Tuesday he’s “very hopeful” that he can convince the world’s largest multi-trillion-dollar social media tech companies to change their harmful ways, after other provinces, the Canadian government, 33 American states, the U.S. senate, the White House, Australia, the European Union, most of the leaders of the modern world and the brightest minds of our generation have so far failed to do so.

If that sounds far-fetched — well, it is what it is.

And yet, Eby launched forward into the issue Tuesday, pausing a bill to sue those companies in favour of creating a new “online safety action table” for talks.

“To the best of our knowledge, we're the only jurisdiction in North America, and perhaps in the world, that has captured the attention of social media companies in this way and has a prospect of reaching a co-operative agreement to protect kids,” said the premier.

“I think that that is a remarkable accomplishment for British Columbia.”

We will see how remarkable it ends up being.

B.C. introduced Bill 12, its legislation to sue social media companies, last month with a promise to use the courts to extract financial penalties for the harms caused by the algorithms that push videos and photos to youth.

“Some [companies] use particularly addictive algorithms to create a dependency on their apps and platforms that can lead to mental health problems, including experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression,” Attorney General Niki Sharma said March 14.

“These are some of the kinds of companies that I want to help stop.”

For the record, there is zero — literally, zero — chance that Chinese state-controlled TikTok is going to alter the proprietary and lucrative algorithm that so effectively feeds its users content, just because the Province of British Columbia is concerned it might be harmful to youth.

More than 27 nations in the European Union on Monday demanded TikTok provide more information on a new app that pays users to watch videos, and the company wouldn’t even do that, choosing instead to fight the lawmakers publicly. Yet B.C. thinks it can somehow get a different outcome.

Same for Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, which not only refused to budge on the issue of child safety after a devastating leak of internal documents in 2021 showed it knew of harms, but also as recently as January when CEO Mark Zuckerberg was publicly grilled by U.S. lawmakers.

If the U.S. Senate can’t push Meta to reform by forcing Zuckerberg to testify in public, what hope does a closed-door working group of low-level functionaries in British Columbia have?

B.C. also insists X (formerly Twitter) has already agreed to negotiate reforms.

This would be the same X that has devolved into a sewer of hate, racism and misinformation since being purchased by Elon Musk. The same Musk that on Tuesday publicly attacked the prime minister of Australia because the country tried to force X to take down a horrific video of an alleged terrorist attack in Sydney.

“Does the PM think he should have jurisdiction over all of Earth?” Musk posted.

It’s a question Eby will need to answer at some point as well, if he wants to dance with the devils of the global technology world.

Then there is Snapchat, the company that most recently faced the ire of B.C.’s premier over its role in allowing Prince George teenager Carson Cleland to be blackmailed on its platform over intimate images, before the teen took his own life.

Snapchat is on board to change, B.C. government officials insisted. Someone might want to tell Snapchat though, which issued a statement saying that: “We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the Government of British Columbia and to share more about our commitment to the safety and wellbeing of the Snapchat community.”

The company then provided a long list of existing safety protocols that it intends to “share” with British Columbia — “we are vigilant about protecting our youngest users,” it added — all of which totally, utterly and completely failed to protect 12-year-old Carson last year. Good sharing.

If the B.C. public is skeptical about these companies being willing to negotiate in good faith, it’s partly because the NDP primed them to feel that way as early as last month when Eby described the “big, faceless companies” as being so totally resistant to reason that they could only be tackled as hostile entities in court.

“The billionaires who run them resist accountability, resist any suggestion that they have responsibility for the harms that they're causing,” Eby said March 14.

Officials in the premier’s office even went so far as to set up for a media call with Frances Haugen, the former Facebook product manager that blew the whistle on the company in 2021, who outlined in great detail how Meta can’t be trusted because it knows about the harms of its products and fails to fully address them. Either take them to court or heavily regulate them with federal laws, she said.

At the time, B.C. officials nodded along and pointed to this as rationale for their lawsuit legislation. And yet not 40 days later, they’ve apparently all changed their tune.

The only shred of evidence Eby provided for his optimism was “assurance” from Meta that it would address his complaints about blocking local media outlets on Facebook and Instagram during last year’s wildfire season.

“I think their conduct is incredibly reprehensible,” Eby said about Meta in March.

“This is a company that in the middle of forest fire season, when I was asking please allow local news coverage of wildfires through, instead chose to hold local communities hostage so that they could advance their financial negotiations with the federal government and refused to provide that information to families.”

And yet, it turns out Meta didn’t even budge on that issue.

The premier’s office later admitted Tuesday it had only obtained a promise “they will be working with us on ways to help distribute official wildfire information to British Columbians.” So, amplified government press releases, not local news.

The public would be wise to watch for more of this clever sleight-of-hand in the weeks ahead.

In the absence of the major tech companies fundamentally altering the algorithms that push out addictive content, diet fads, harmful body image videos, hate, sexism, violence, revenge porn and other odious content, all that is left is political spin and half-measures.

The most likely outcome from B.C.’s “action table” will be a pat on the head for the province and a few million dollars from the companies for some sort of utterly useless online education portal and public information campaign about the harms of social media.

Toss in a “memorandum of understanding” or a non-binding “code of conduct” if you are feeling ambitious, and maybe even an agreement to expedite public complaints through B.C.’s existing Civil Resolution Tribunal if you really want to add a second layer to the nothingburger.

“I'm very hopeful — more hopeful than I've been, frankly, since the beginning of these issues and attempting to address them in British Columbia — that we may actually be able to make some real progress for kids,” said Eby on Tuesday.

It’s too bad the premier didn’t bring the rest of the public along with him on his skyrocketing journey from skeptic to optimist. We’re all still back here in the real world, where the premier of a small Canadian province is unable to change the core business models of trillion-dollar tech companies that have proven, time and time again, they answer to no one.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.