Heritage minister and Facebook officials face questioning over government ties

On Friday, Liberal Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault and senior officials at Facebook Canada faced questioning over incoming online hate speech legislation and the company’s ties with the federal government. 

During the Committee on Canadian Heritage meeting, questions arose over Facebook’s moderation of hate speech and Canadian media content on its platform, to which Facebook Canada Global Director Kevin Chan said that the company welcomes any clear regulation from the government and would work to comply once the legislation is put into place. 

“There are some things we can remove very quickly — terrorist content, child nudity, child exploitation. I can tell you that proactively [our] systems find and remove over 99% of that kind of content that people try to put on Facebook. But the second door, which is the door we’re talking about here, is where context and nuance is important,” said Chan.

“Where context is important, we do have humans look at it, we don’t want to have an automated system just remove something and deny someone’s speech just because without understanding the context. There we do rely on humans and there I do agree with you that it does take some time but we generally are pretty fast at it.” 

Earlier this month, a document from the Department of Canadian Heritage revealed that the government was planning to introduce new rules to scrub Facebook and Twitter of content it deems offensive. 

“We intend a comprehensive approach with the tabling of a bill in early 2021 that will apply to the various platforms,” staff wrote in a briefing note.

“We are working to introduce regulations to reduce the spread of illegal content, including hate speech, in order to promote a safer and more inclusive online environment. We want to protect Canadians online.”

Opposition MPs also grilled Guilbeault over a 2020 email chain in which Chan asked a senior public sector employee in the heritage department to circulate a job posting among employees. 

In response to questions by NDP MP and committee member Heather McPherson, Guilbeault denied that the email chain violated any ethics codes.

“Does it violate any code of ethics or code of conduct? The answer is no. How many times did it happen in the last year? Once, that particular instance. I take issue with the fact that we would question the ethical value of our civil service in Canada based on something that’s simply not there,” said Guilbeault. 

Testifying alongside the minister were Deputy Minister Hélène Laurendeau and Senior Assistant Deputy Minister Jean-Stéphen Piché.

“I reviewed the facts associated with that email as a first step and I can assure the committee that we came to the conclusion that sharing publicly available information is not a reprehensible act,” said Laurendeau. 

“This does not look good if you don’t mind me saying. It smells, when Facebook, who you will have major implementation with in the coming months is doing personal emails to your staff,” said Conservative MP Kevin Waugh. 

Later on in the committee meeting, Chan along with Facebook Canada’s Head of Media Partnerships Marc Dinsdale and the company’s Policy Manager Rachel Curran also addressed questions regarding the job postings. 

“We have business and professional relationships with all organizations that have a presence on Facebook,” said Chan.

“This job description was shared broadly with various and many different organizations across the public, private and non-private sectors. And there are programs within the government itself, in the public service of Canada that facilitates this.”

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