Balsillie decries toxic, unchecked technology at big data committee

toxic social media

A Canadian high-tech pioneer says a "toxic" social media business model is a threat to democracy.

Jim Balsillie, the retired chief executive of Research In Motion, which invented the BlackBerry smart phone, offers that grim warning in testimony today before the international grand committee on big data, privacy and democracy.

Balsillie, now the chair of the Ontario Centre for International Governance Innovation, says technology, if left unchecked, will displace print and broadcast media, and he urged a panel politicians to impose restrictions on big internet companies.

"Social media's toxicity is not a bug – it's a feature," he said in testimony before an international committee of politicians at the start of the second day of three days of meetings in Ottawa aimed at figuring out how best to protect citizens' privacy and democratic fairness in the age of social media.

Committee members will also grill representatives from a host of internet giants – Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon and Mozilla – on what they're doing, or not doing, to prevent abuse.

Balsillie also offered a thinly-veiled criticism of Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg for not responding to the committee's subpoena to testify.

The company is sending other officials to give evidence at the grand committee is made up of politicians from Canada, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, France, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore.

"By displacing the print and broadcast media in influencing public opinion, technology is becoming the new Fourth Estate. In our system of checks and balances, this makes technology co-equal with the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary," he said.

"When this new Fourth Estate declines to appear before this committee – as Silicon Valley executives are currently doing – it is symbolically asserting this aspirational co-equal status . . . The work of this international grand committee is a vital first step towards redress of this untenable current situation."

Tech giants will be in the hot seat this week as politicians from Canada and 10 other countries gather to consider how best to protect citizens' privacy and their democracies in the age of big data.

It will hear from experts on how best governments can prevent the use of social media to violate individuals' privacy, spread fake news, sow dissension and manipulate election outcomes.

This week's meeting – the second since last year's inaugural gathering in Britain – is being hosted by the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics.

During Monday's opening session experts painted a grim, almost apocalyptic, picture of democracy under assault.

Prior to the start of the meeting, Facebook, Google and Microsoft signed onto a declaration promising a dozen initiatives to protect the integrity of the Canadian election this fall – including working to remove phoney social-media accounts and fake content.

But other tech giants, including Twitter, have not signed on.

Experts, meanwhile, are warning that such efforts to address disinformation and online attempts to sow dissension and manipulate election outcomes are focusing merely on symptoms of a much larger problem: the very business model that underpins the tech giants.