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Rob Shaw: B.C. ready to get tough on tech titans with sweeping legislation

From sextortion to eating disorders, province targets platforms and companies endangering youth
B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma (left) and Premier David Eby.

British Columbia vaulted to a national leadership position Thursday with new legislation to allow it to sue a wide variety of companies — including social media tech giants — for harming people’s health.

Premier David Eby had foreshadowed the move in January, saying he wanted to ensure that the death of 12-year-old Carson Cleland, who took his own life after falling victim to online sextortion, was not in vain.

But the actual bill introduced in the legislature Thursday was much broader than expected.

Eby and Attorney General Niki Sharma cited several examples of how it could work: Government suing a beverage company for marketing an energy drink full of caffeine to kids, a vape company that targets children with addictive flavours, an image-sharing service (like Snapchat) that fails to put in safety measures to prevent child exploitation, a social media app (like Facebook or Instagram) where the algorithm pushes toxic content around body image and dieting that contributes to eating disorders, or a website that allows intimate images to be shared without consent.

“The message to these big, faceless companies is you will be held accountable in British Columbia for the harm that you caused to people,” said Eby.

The Public Health Accountability and Cost Recovery Act even allows the province to hold liable individual company board members and executives.

“We will pursue the directors and the officers of these companies for costs,” said Eby.

The result is legislation that leads the country, said Emily Laidlaw, the Canada Research Chair in cybersecurity law at the University of Calgary, who specializes in online harms and platform regulation.

“It's something that we're missing in Canada right now, I mean social media essentially self-regulates,” she said. “And so this enables the government to address what is kind of a profound societal issue, and put in place consumer protection expectations for social media.”

The first target is likely Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, which Eby has used as a rhetorical punching bag for almost a year after it banned Canadian news sites amid a dispute with the federal government.

“I think their conduct is incredibly reprehensible,” Eby said Thursday, tearing a strip off the company publicly for at least the third time.

“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.”

The case against Meta is also well-advanced due to the fact a former Facebook product manager, Frances Haugen, blew the whistle on the company in the United States, revealing it knew Instagram was worsening body image issues amongst youth, for example, and yet failed to mitigate the harms to its users, choosing profit over safety.

But beyond Facebook? B.C. could be charting new waters.

“How wide are they looking at for social media services?” asked Laidlaw. “Are they going to include Amazon on this? Because Amazon, products that have been sold on it, have been used to take lives. And so, I have a wait and see approach to see how they tackle these particular issues.”

The legal battles will play out over years in courtrooms. Eby cited B.C.’s successful lawsuits against tobacco companies and opioid manufacturers, under other legislation.

Yet success is hard to measure under these kinds of laws.

More than a decade later, B.C. is still negotiating settlements with the tobacco industry and hasn’t seen any cash whatsoever. Pharma company Purdue agreed in 2022 to settle for $150 million with B.C. over addictive pain medication — a small drop in the bucket compared to the many lives ruined and billions in health-care costs during the eight-year public health emergency on overdose deaths still fuelled by opioid addiction.

That may be, at the end of the day, all B.C.’s new legislation will do — allow the province to recover a tiny fraction of the cost of the harms to British Columbians, even as the overall problem still continues.

Eby, though, said the tobacco and opioid examples are illustrative because the courtroom wrangling and bad publicity also helped drive the companies out of business.

“I’m sure [it] has put a chill through that industry in terms of their role in promoting harmful products,” he said.

“So, to date, we haven't actually seen a full trial on these things. We have seen bankruptcies and settlements. And that is certainly a possible outcome.”

There is a larger value, too, other than just the dense legal wrangling, said Tracy Vaillancourt, the Canada Research Chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention at the University of Ottawa.

“I think it sends the right message when we put legislation behind something,” she said. “We’re signalling to society what we value. And here we’re signalling that your province, British Columbia, is valuing children and their well-being.”

Social media apps that attempt to gauge what content you like, and pump more of it at you as quickly as possible, likely aren’t disappearing any time soon, even if a collective effort of national and subnational governments took down a major player like TikTok.

After all, people like getting more of the content they want — say, cat videos for example, because objectively cats are awesome.

It’s when the content starts to turn, perhaps by reinforcing unrealistic body types or harmful diet trends, that the algorithm becomes dangerous.

“Young people don’t understand how sophisticated these algorithms are,” said Vaillancourt.

“So it’s an inherently unfair fight, in a sense, because they’re not aware of the fact that they’re being manipulated and the manipulation is causing them harm.”

Opposition BC United leader Kevin Falcon offered tentative support for the legislation, but said he’ll want to see further details. It could ultimately pass the legislature with unanimous support.

What kind of difference the new legislation actually makes, how much money it recovers and whether it forces companies to put more effort into the safety of their services, remains to be seen.

“Companies … are profiting as they offer services that we would never tolerate them to offer in the real world,” said Eby.

“We would never allow a company to set up a space for kids where grown adults could be invited in to contact them, encourage them to share photographs and then threaten to distribute those photographs to their family and friends.

“That place would be shut down in 10 minutes, the proprietors would be in jail. And yet for some reason, these companies, when they do the exact same thing through cell phones, the billionaires who run them resist accountability, resist any suggestion that they have responsibility for the harms that they are causing.”

To start to turn that tide, B.C. is putting the first of several legal lines in the sand.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 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.

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