NDP Charlie Angus Breaks Silence, Calls Bill C-10 a “Dumpster Fire”

MP Charlie Angus, long looked up to for his record on digital rights, has broken his silence on Bill C-10.

Bill C-10, Canada’s speech regulation bill that would pick winners and losers on large platforms, died on the orderpaper back in August after Trudeau called an election about nothing and left Canada with the same government as before. The debate surrounding the bill shook people who supported free speech because it would dramatically alter who could become successful on social media in Canada. It also would have formed a huge bureaucracy to determine who is Canadian and who is not (spoiler alert: it would have been very hard for non-establishment producers to be considered “Canadian”).

Of course, there was a major toll the bill took despite it never coming into law. The Conservatives opposed it while the Liberals, Bloc, Green, NDP all supported it. The Liberals and the Bloc’s position is not exactly surprising. Both are very pro-corporate parties. The big surprises were the NDP supporting it and the Conservatives being against it. You’d think it would be the opposite considering that the NDP has always been pro digital rights and the Conservatives were always joined at the hip with corporate interests. The party that took the most damage in all of this was the NDP, however. Many digital rights advocates and organizations (ourselves included) felt betrayed by the stance and doing some soul searching in the fallout.

One question on the minds of everyone was, “Where is Charlie Angus?” After all, Angus was the one that held the government to account for years when it came to copyright reform. He really was the go-to person when it came to MPs that know how technology works and is in the House of Commons. So, if anyone was going to speak out, you’d think it would be him. The government was once again threatening the free and open Internet. You’d think that that would have been his cue to enter and be the voice of reason in the House once again.

This time? Nothing. No snappy remarks. No questions that clearly came from someone with a deep understanding. Just silence.

Eventually, we did get a response – when it came time to vote that is. As the votes were being counted, Angus fell in line with the rest of the NDP and voted for Bill C-10:

Mr. Charlie Angus (Timmins—James Bay) NDP Yea

For many watching the debate unfold, that was the moment everyone concluded that the Charlie Angus we knew for years was seemingly no more. Instead of getting that voice of deep understanding – and one who was not shy about voicing it by any stretch of the imagination – we got a Charlie Angus who will be silently complicit in an effort to abridge freedom of expression. All you could do is shake your head in disbelief.

Now, here we are, four months later, and imagine our surprise to suddenly see Charlie Angus pop up in the news again. Apparently, he has a lot to say about Bill C-10. From the National Post:

He called on the Liberal government to drop its current approach to online regulation — including the “dumpster fire” broadcasting Bill C-10 — and establish an office of digital rights and technology that would be empowered to address issues like algorithmic transparency.

“Now we get a chance to rethink and do this right,” Angus told reporters Monday. “The massive use of algorithms and AI, and their deliberate misuse by Facebook, must be addressed.”

Angus pointed to revelations from Haugen, a former data analyst with Facebook who went public with internal research and said the company was prioritizing profit over users, even as it was aware its algorithms were pushing harmful content to users.

Haugen’s testimony revealed “Facebook knew that its algorithms are driving hate content and leading to breakdown in civic engagement,” and that its Instagram platform was having a serious negative effect on teens, Angus said.

Angus said Bill C-10 was a “political dumpster fire,” and that the CRTC is the wrong body to take this on, given that Facebook is not a broadcaster and that the CRTC hasn’t stood up to the companies it currently regulates.

“It’s time for the federal government to establish a regulator that actually understands this file,” and that has the budget, tools and power to take on these issues, Angus said.

With respect to the comment about how Instagram supposedly makes teenagers feel worse about themselves, it appears as though Angus caught himself in media overhype. The Wallstreet Journal ran a series of posts known as the “Facebook files” (Paywalled, naturally). One of the studies revolved around how Instagram made teenagers feel about themselves. In that study, they found that a mere 3% of US teenagers felt worse about themselves while on Instagram. The rest of the numbers showed that 16% felt somewhat worse, 41% felt indifferent, 29% felt somewhat better, and 12% felt much better about themselves.

Of course, the traditional media being the traditional media, they wanted to make hay out of this. So, the Wallstreet Journal lumped all negative reactions and said that 1 in 5 teenagers said that Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. That… isn’t exactly a headline that sells all that well. So, it got reworked into headlines like “Facebook documents show how toxic Instagram is for teens, Wall Street Journal reports“, “Instagram fuels both body-image issues and social connections, teen girls say“, and “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Harming Teens. But Is Anything Going to Change?“. Yes, 3% got spun up that hard by big media outlets (and yet people still look at me funny when I say that traditional media outlets are quite biased these days).

Facebook, for it’s part, defended themselves by pointing out that Instagram also made a large share of teenagers better about themselves. Further, they released their own study. They commented:

In advance of Facebook’s Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis appearing before a Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Thursday, we want to be clear about what the research recently characterized by The Wall Street Journal shows, and what it does not show.

It is simply not accurate that this research demonstrates Instagram is “toxic” for teen girls. The research actually demonstrated that many teens we heard from feel that using Instagram helps them when they are struggling with the kinds of hard moments and issues teenagers have always faced. In fact, in 11 of 12 areas on the slide referenced by the Journal — including serious areas like loneliness, anxiety, sadness and eating issues — more teenage girls who said they struggled with that issue also said that Instagram made those difficult times better rather than worse. Body image was the only area where teen girls who reported struggling with the issue said Instagram made it worse as compared to the other 11 areas. But here also, the majority of teenage girls who experienced body image issues still reported Instagram either made it better or had no impact. We go into more details below on how the research actually lines up with what The Wall Street Journal claimed.

In addition to putting specific findings in context, it is also critical to make the nature of this research clear. This research, some of which relied on input from only 40 teens, was designed to inform internal conversations about teens’ most negative perceptions of Instagram. It did not measure causal relationships between Instagram and real-world issues. These documents were also created for and used by people who understood the limitations of the research, which is why they occasionally used shorthand language, particularly in the headlines, and do not explain the caveats on every slide.

That ultimately sparked headlines like these: “Seeking to respin Instagram’s toxicity for teens, Facebook publishes annotated slide decks“, and “Facebook Struggles to Quell Uproar Over Instagram’s Effect on Teens“.

Facebook is, by no means, an angelic company in any way shape or form. Their pro-conservative bias, their handling of privacy related issues, and growth at all costs mentality are among a long list of ways the company has a well-deserved negative reputation. This issue, however, really reflects more negatively on the media than it did on Facebook. In our view, in the media’s quest to paint large tech giants as the super villain of our time, they shot themselves in the foot on this one. Little surprise that Techdirt took advantage of the media’s screw-up on this one.

As we saw with Angus’s comment, it appears that he got caught up in all of this and (wrongly) assumed that the media was the ones who are correct in all of this.

Still, Angus does rightfully comment that Bill C-10 is a dumpster fire that should be tossed. In some ways, reading the comments felt like reading what the Charlie Angus of old would say. While it is a feel good moment, the problem is that his words ring somewhat hollow thanks to his voting recording. If C-10 was such a dumpster fire that requires a major rethink, then why did Angus vote for it when the time came to take a stand against this? If Angus thinks that making a few splashy comments in the media is going to salvage his reputation, in our view, it’s going to take more now. Even an abstaining vote might have made his comments more believable. Actions speak louder than words and Angus’s “Yea” vote action, for now, speaks louder than his “dumpster fire” words.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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