Evidence of meeting #152 for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was democracy.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Damian Collins  Chair, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, United Kingdom House of Commons
Jim Balsillie  Chair, Centre for International Governance Innovation, As an Individual
Roger McNamee  As an Individual
Shoshana Zuboff  As an Individual
Maria Ressa  Chief Executive Officer and Executive Editor, Rappler Inc., As an Individual
Ian Lucas  Member, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, United Kingdom House of Commons
Jo Stevens  Member, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, United Kingdom House of Commons
Edwin Tong  Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Law and Ministry of Health, Parliament of Singapore
Sun Xueling  Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of National Development, Parliament of Singapore
Jens Zimmermann  Social Democratic Party, Parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany
Keit Pentus-Rosimannus  Vice-Chairwoman, Reform Party, Parliament of the Republic of Estonia (Riigikogu)
Antares Guadalupe Vázquez Alatorre  Senator, Senate of the United Mexican States
Mohammed Ouzzine  Deputy Speaker, Committee of Education and Culture and Communication, House of Representatives of the Kingdom of Morocco
Carolina Hidalgo Herrera  Member, Legislative Assembly of the Republic of Costa Rica
Andy Daniel  Speaker, House of Assembly of Saint Lucia

9:15 a.m.

Jo Stevens Member, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, United Kingdom House of Commons

My question is to Roger McNamee.

What do you think Mark Zuckerberg is more frightened about—privacy regulation or antitrust action?

9:15 a.m.

As an Individual

Roger McNamee

He is more afraid of privacy.

To Mr. Lucas, I would just say that the hardest part of this is setting the standard of what the harm is. These guys have hidden behind the fact that it's very hard to quantify many of these things.

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

Thank you, Ms. Stevens.

We'll go to Mr. Erskine-Smith for five minutes.

9:15 a.m.

Liberal

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Liberal Beaches—East York, ON

Because Mr. Picard has a copy of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism with sticky notes all over it and highlights, I'll pass my five minutes to him.

9:15 a.m.

Liberal

Michel Picard Liberal Montarville, QC

My questions will start with Ms. Zuboff.

You talk about someone who is writing the music for us to dance to, so let's dance.

Your question at the beginning was whether the digital future could be our home. My reaction to that is that in fact the question should be whether the future home can be without digital.

9:15 a.m.

As an Individual

Shoshana Zuboff

That's such an important distinction, because I don't think there is a single one of us in this room who is against the digital per se. This is not about being anti-technology. It's about technology being hijacked by a rogue economic logic that has turned it to its own purposes.

We talked about this a little last night, the idea that conflating the digital with surveillance capitalism is a dangerous category error. What we need is to be able to free the potential of the digital to get back to those values of democratization of knowledge and individual emancipation and empowerment that it was meant to serve and that it still can serve.

May 28th, 2019 / 9:15 a.m.

Liberal

Michel Picard Liberal Montarville, QC

That's where I thought we were going to go, because in your book you compared now to the industrial revolution, in which, although we were scared of the new technology, somehow this technology was addressed to people, for them to be the beneficiary of that progress. Now we are not the beneficiaries at all. It's, as you say, a coup des gens. It's not a coup d'état, so it's not a second step of this revolution. It's a situation in which people become the producers of the raw material and, as you wrote:

...Google's invention revealed new capabilities to infer and deduce the thoughts, feelings, intentions, and interests of individuals and groups with an automated architecture that operates as a one-way mirror irrespective of a person's awareness....

It's like the people connected to the machine in The Matrix.

9:15 a.m.

As an Individual

Shoshana Zuboff

Yes, that metaphor is full of potential. It is true.

From the very beginning, the data scientists at Google who were inventing surveillance capitalism celebrated in their written patents and in their published research the fact that they could hunt and capture behavioural surplus without users ever being aware of these backstage operations. Surveillance was baked into the DNA of this economic logic and essential to its strange form of value creation, so it's with that kind of sobriety and gravitas that it is called “surveillance capitalism”, because without the surveillance piece, it cannot exist.

9:15 a.m.

Liberal

Michel Picard Liberal Montarville, QC

I'm in a world where I cannot live without digital, of course. I have two phones just for me. My fridge can talk to me now. We learned that a few weeks ago. It's everywhere.

Now I have to regulate all this. I have two possibilities. First, I will quote Mr. Schmidt at the Mobile World Congress and what he said when asked about government regulation, which was that the technology moves so fast that governments really shouldn't try to regulate it because it will change too fast, and any problem will be solved by technology. He said, “We'll move move much faster than any government.”

Maybe I could have a comment from you, Professor, and also from Mr. Balsillie.

9:20 a.m.

As an Individual

Shoshana Zuboff

I'm so glad you brought that up, because this is part of the relentless ideology of the surveillance capitalists. They have tried to put lawmakers on the run. They have tried to pit lawmakers against citizens. That “we serve the citizens” is exactly what is going on in Toronto right now: “Do you really want the government to take away these beautiful wooden buildings and these warm sidewalks that we're going to build for you?”

This is ideology. The fact is that they claim the right to freedom in the same way that Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek argued that we need free markets and free market actors, because the marketplace is this ineffable mystery that no one can manage—ergo, freedom is necessary.

The surveillance capitalists claimed that freedom, but the market is no longer ineffable for them. They have total information. They know everything that's going in and out of their marketplaces. Surveillance capitalism knows too much to qualify for freedom. This is a rotten ideology at its core, and we must not be intimidated by it.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

Michel Picard Liberal Montarville, QC

I just have a few seconds—

9:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

Thank you. We're out of time, Mr. Picard.

We'll go next for five minutes to Mr. Kent.

9:20 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Thank you, Chair, and thanks to all of our witnesses this morning. It has been very enlightening.

While there seems to be general agreement that eventually harmonized legislation, regulation and policy development across the democracies may be a counter to surveillance capitalism, that doesn't seem likely any time soon.

Ms. Zuboff, last night you said that the “front line” in surveillance capitalism is Toronto, in Sidewalk Labs and the smart city project.

Mr. Balsillie, you've been quoted as saying that Sidewalk Labs is “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism” and that Sidewalk Labs “continues to weaponize ambiguity”.

For the two of you, perhaps Ms. Zuboff first and then Mr. Balsillie, has the City of Toronto been steamrollered—bamboozled—by Sidewalk Labs' razzle-dazzle, Mr. Doctoroff's vision, as it has gradually emerged?

9:20 a.m.

As an Individual

Shoshana Zuboff

Of course I would cede to Mr. Balsillie, because he's been more on the ground there than I have, but in talking with the folks there, including Bianca Wylie, who is the citizen activist, and in reading everything that I have read, there's no question. I mean, this is how Sidewalk Labs operates.

They go into cities offering things that the municipality cannot afford and they do it for a quid pro quo—the suspension of law. They say, “We'll come into your city and provide all of these things, but we don't want to have to deal with policies and we don't want to have to deal with politics, so you're going to have to clean all that up if you want our money.”

This is the direct bypassing of democracy in order to impose their vision, which ultimately is aimed at their own narrow commercial purposes.

9:20 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

That was basically what Mr. Schmidt said some years ago: Give us a city to run and we'll run it.

9:20 a.m.

Chair, Centre for International Governance Innovation, As an Individual

Jim Balsillie

History will be very kind to those who are taking the leadership, like those around this table, and it will judge very harshly those who succumbed to their personal insecurities to be razzle-dazzled by these folks. Of course you can regulate. You have all the power to regulate. Of course you can. I think you can regulate very much in the near term. There are very clear surgical points that you can move to that will begin the shift, as everyone has mentioned. People like Ms. Ressa are calling for help.

9:20 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

We've seen that Google has said, in response to new federal elections legislation on advertising, “We'll simply withdraw from accepting advertising.”

Is it possible that big data could simply pull out of jurisdictions where regulations, in the absence of harmonized regulation across the democracies, are present?

9:25 a.m.

Chair, Centre for International Governance Innovation, As an Individual

Jim Balsillie

That's the best news possible, because as everyone has attested here, the purpose of surveillance capitalism is to undermine personal autonomy. Elections and democracy are centred on the sovereign self, exercising a sovereign will. Why in the world would you want to undermine the core bedrock of an election in a non-transparent fashion to the highest bidder at the very time your whole citizenry is on the line?

In fact, the revenue for this is immaterial to these companies. One of my recommendations is to just ban personalized online ads during elections. There are a lot of things you're not allowed to do for six or eight weeks. Just put that into the package. It's simple and straightforward.

9:25 a.m.

As an Individual

Roger McNamee

There's one point that I think is being overlooked here, which is really important, and that is that if these companies disappeared tomorrow, the services they offer would not disappear from the marketplace. It would take literally moments. In a matter of weeks you could replicate Facebook, which would be the harder one. There are substitutes for everything that Google does that are done without surveillance capitalism. Do not in your mind allow any kind of connection between the services you like and the business model of surveillance capitalism. There is no inherent link there, none at all. This is something that has been created by these people because it's wildly more profitable.

9:25 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Thank you.

9:25 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

Thank you, Mr. Kent.

Next up is Mr. Angus.

9:25 a.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Thank you, Chair.

I'll say at the beginning that I represent a region that's bigger than the United Kingdom. I represent communities that have no roads, some of the poorest indigenous communities. Facebook and YouTube transformed the power of indigenous communities to speak to each other, to start to change the dynamic of how white society spoke about them. I understand it has incredible power for good.

I see more and more, though, in my region self-radicalized people, who are impossible to speak to. There are flat earthers—yes, there are; I've met them—anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers. I've seen the effect on our elections of the manipulation of anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim materials, but I had not yet seen the threat of death.

Ms. Ressa, you said yesterday that while in the west we face democratic threats, people are dying in Asia from the manipulation of these platforms. In an act of solidarity with our Parliament, with our legislators, are there statements that should be made publicly through our Parliament to give you support so that we can maintain a link with you as an important ally on the front line? I'd like to ask that as my first question.

9:25 a.m.

Chief Executive Officer and Executive Editor, Rappler Inc., As an Individual

Maria Ressa

Thank you.

Prime Minister Trudeau, when he visited Manila, was the only one of all the world leaders who were here at that point in time during APEC who mentioned human rights at all. Canada has been at the forefront of holding fast to the values of human rights and of press freedom.

Thank you in advance. I think the more we speak about this, the more the values are reiterated, especially since someone like President Trump truly likes President Duterte, and vice versa. It's very personal.

When you talk about where people are dying, you've seen this all over Asia. There is Myanmar. There is the drug war here in the Philippines. In India and Pakistan there are instances of this tool that is being used for empowerment, just as in your district, and being something that we do not want to go away, that we do not want to be shut down. Despite the great threats that I and my company face, Facebook and other social media platforms still give us the ability to organize and to create communities of action that had not been there before.

9:25 a.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Thank you very much.

I've been very concerned about Sidewalk Labs. Looking at it as a real estate deal, this might be the most prime real estate in North America that was handed over to Google on what the Auditor General of Ontario said was the shortest RFP she's ever seen, of I think six weeks. It's 10 weeks for a local art project down there. Dan Doctoroff came and told us it was the longest RFP in history. The Auditor General raised concerns that there was no public involvement, that this was done behind the scenes. Dan Doctoroff told us that this was the most open process ever.

I'm very concerned about the privatization of public space. I come from mining country. We had company towns. We fought like hell to get rid of them.

I've heard from Mr. Balsillie and I've heard from Ms. Zuboff, so Mr. McNamee, what do you think the citizens of Toronto should do regarding giving Google that prime real estate in the downtown where so many people gather?

9:30 a.m.

As an Individual

Roger McNamee

I wouldn't let them within 100 miles of Toronto. The fundamental issue here is one of self-governance and self-determination. I just don't believe that any business—not Google, not anybody—should be in the business of operating our public spaces and our civic infrastructure. There is a limit to what you can do with a public-private partnership, and that is way over the line.

There is an experiment going on in Barcelona, I believe, in a smart city project where the community and the citizens own the data. That will be a very interesting thing to watch.

The observation I would make is that I am still cautious about the gathering of the data in the first place. I believe that the underlying issues relative to surveillance create too many temptations for people. At the moment, it's way, way too difficult to monitor what they're doing with the data once it's collected. I believe that all of these things require, to use an old government phrase, dramatically more study before we move forward.