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Making the digital public square a safe place

Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies MP Bob Zimmer participates in the virtual fourth meeting of the International Grand Committee. Submitted photo

BY BOB ZIMMER

Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies MP

At the beginning of December I had the opportunity to take part in the virtual two-day fourth meeting of the International Grand Committee.

The International Grand Committee was created at the Post Pub in Washington DC when UK MP Damian Collins, now retired UK MP Ian Lucas, MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, CEO of Digital Content Next Jason Kint and myself met for what I now call the “The Post Pub Summit.”

I had the privilege of co-chairing the inaugural meeting in London, UK in November 2018 and hosting and co-chairing the second meeting when we met in Ottawa in May 2019 when I was Chair of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. 

These meetings bring together parliamentarians from around the world to meet and discuss the role digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter play in our democracies.

It was when I was Chair of the Ethics committee that news broke that a company called Cambridge Analytica had gathered large amounts of personal information from tens of millions of people’s Facebook accounts, including over 600,000 Canadians.  

This led to our committee’s investigation into the scandal, as well as digital platforms and the privacy of Canadians. Throughout the course of our committee’s studies we heard from experts and academics, regulators, and the platforms themselves. 

At the recent fourth meeting, I spoke to my international colleagues about my concerns regarding deliberate polarization online and the role algorithms may play in this new digital public square. I also spoke of the issues that I believe the committee should continue to focus on moving forward including how an individual’s data is used, the privacy of users, algorithm accountability, and foreign influence in elections.

As governments around the world look for ways to hold these platforms to account, I also stressed the importance of ensuring that our fundamental right to freedom of speech is protected.

Whether we agree with what someone is saying or not, everyone in Canada has the right to legally express their opinions. It is one of our core values and is protected under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While we look for ways to make this new digital public square a safer place for our children, we must all protect and defend this right, regardless of what your political leanings are. We must all fight against the left’s ‘cancel culture’ desire to silence voices as opposed to having a constructive discussion.

As I said in my remarks, based on a quote attributed to Voltaire: “I may disagree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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