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Tech giants are turning their customers into products in threat to democracy, warns Jim Balsillie

Ex-Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie says the USMCA trade deal contains provisions that will “lock in” existing business models and “prevent lawmaker oversight of algorithms” used to track and direct consumer behaviour.
Ex-Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie says the USMCA trade deal contains provisions that will “lock in” existing business models and “prevent lawmaker oversight of algorithms” used to track and direct consumer behaviour.

Jim Balsillie, former co-chief executive of Research in Motion, is warning that the business models behind today’s tech giants are built to turn their customers into products, and pose a serious threat to liberal democracy and open markets.

In prepared remarks for an address expected to be made Thursday in Dublin, Balsillie expresses concern that the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement contains provisions that will “lock in” existing business models and “prevent lawmaker oversight of algorithms” used to track and direct consumer behaviour.

He also suggests that the U.S. administration is working to “entrench these rules globally” through World Trade Organization negotiations on the trade-related aspects of e-commerce.

Balsillie is the only Canadian scheduled to speak at the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and “Fake News” gathering in Ireland, which is expected to draw attendees from more than 10 countries, including politicians from the United States and Australia. Representatives from social media companies including Facebook, Youtube, Google, and Twitter are also expected to speak at the committee gathering, the third convened since last November.

According to the prepared remarks, Balsillie, whose former company championed Canadian technology and made international inroads with the once-ubiquitous Blackberry handheld device, says that data at the micro-personal level gives technology unprecedented power, and that business models on the current landscape make manipulation profitable.

“If left unaddressed, it will render liberal democracy and free markets obsolete,” warns Balsillie, who is chairman of the Centre of International Governance Innovation, a think tank he founded in Waterloo, Ont.

“The timing is urgent,” he adds.

The gathering in Ireland follows meetings in the United Kingdom and Ottawa. A statement announcing the latest meeting said the committee aims to agree to a set of principles that will underpin international collaboration on tackling issues of harmful content and electoral interference online while respecting freedom of speech.

Last spring at the meeting in Ottawa, Balsillie made six recommendations. Among them, he called for transparency of all commercial and technical relationships between political parties and social media companies, and said strict privacy regulations should be imposed on political parties when it comes to dealing with personally identifiable information.

The timing is urgent

Balsillie also called for a ban on “personalized” political advertising, saying “this kind of tool for manipulation should not be for sale to the highest bidder during elections.”

He said subscription models are less prone to “poisonous manipulation,” and suggested tax incentives to encourage their adoptions over models that rely on advertising.

He also recommended attaching explicit personal liability to decisions made by chief executives and directors of tech companies, and more effective whistleblower protections.

The first meeting of the International Grand Committee, which is looking to collaborate on the regulation of harmful content and online electoral interference, was held on Nov. 27, 2018 in London.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg declined “several requests” to appear at that first gathering, according to a statement issued last February when Canada’s standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics announced the follow—up meeting in May of 2019.

The list of scheduled speakers for this week’s gathering in Ireland include Facebook’s vice-president of content policy, Monika Bickert.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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