Group of Seven nations are searching for ways to crack down on “disinformation campaigns” that threaten democracies — and suggesting tech giants could face consequences if they don’t cooperate. Foreign and security ministers met in Toronto this week, discussing a range of issues, including Russian interference in elections. The security ministers are scheduled to meet Tuesday with the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, an industry group that includes Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Twitter Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others.
While the group’s focus has been on counter-terrorism, Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale suggested it could be expanded to include how governments and companies in the internet and technology sector could work together to thwart attacks against democracy. The U.S. has said Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered a hacking and disinformation campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. election, while the Cambridge Analytica scandal has raised questions about the use of social media to influence campaigns.
“This is a conversation that is just beginning in many ways but it is a very important conversation where the companies will be held to account for their behavior and their responsibilities,” Goodale told reporters during a press conference in Toronto on Monday.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland declined to specify whether countries would consider new penalties for social media platforms that don’t do enough to stop efforts to destabilize democracies, whether in the G-7 or abroad.
The internet and social media have “created new vulnerabilities and new opportunities for actors that wish to pursue disinformation,” Freeland said. Ministers will “prepare some concrete ideas on how to make our democracies more resilient and indeed how to make democracies more resilient around the world.”
Any new measures will respect free speech, political dissent and freedom of expression, she said. “Even as we work to make our democracies more resilient, I think that point is very important to underscore and ministers certainly did,” Freeland said.
The Washington-based Internet Association, a group that represents big technology firms, didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.
In the U.S., the Democratic National Committee has sued Russia, the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks for what it called a “brazen attack on American democracy.” The Cambridge Analytica scandal also has a Canadian link, with a Victoria-based firm alleged to be the technology behind harvesting social media data to help win elections.
U.S. legislators have proposed a bill requiring online political ads to disclose who paid for them.
Foreign ministers issued a joint communique on Monday that criticized a “pattern of irresponsible and destabilizing Russian behavior, including interference in countries’ democratic systems.” And they pledged to fight terrorism “while safeguarding the democratic character of our countries, promoting the rule of law, and upholding established national and international human rights norms and obligations.”
Security ministers will wrap up their meeting Tuesday afternoon. Goodale said Monday the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism is “very useful” and includes all major internet companies.
“The focus is what they and we can and should do together to counter terrorist use of the world wide web,” he told reporters. “When we get into those conversations, it is very obvious that there are other harms that need to be addressed as well, like child sexual exploitation, like human trafficking, and like the use of the internet for disinformation and for purposes that interfere with democracy and freedom.”