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Peter Menzies: It’s time for Trudeau to stand up to TikTok

Commentary

Here’s a tip for web giants wanting to make sure public policymakers don’t shut them down because they fear they will abuse the power of their platform to exert political influence: don’t use the power of your platform to try to exert political influence.

Such is the lesson learned by TikTok (and, hopefully, others) over the past few days when it encouraged users to call U.S. congressional offices to express their alarm that the popular global social media platform could be evicted from the lucrative American market.

At stake is a bipartisan anti-TikTok bill that is fairly breezing through Congress. It would ban the purveyor of user-generated short-form videos from the U.S. if its parent company, Bytedance, doesn’t sell the video platform. Bytedance, which has global revenue of $110 billion (USD) is a Chinese tech company with firm ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It has over 1.8 billion global users and 3.2 million active monthly users in Canada.

While it ranks as Canada’s third most popular and fourth most regularly used social media platform, 70 percent of its users are under 40 and the majority (60 percent) are women. That makes TikTok particularly appealing to advertisers and politicians trying to appeal to Millennials who now outnumber Baby Boomers.

Bytedance also owns Douyin, which is TikTok’s Chinese counterpart designed specifically to comply with that nation’s censorship restrictions. It has not gone unnoticed, however, that while the two systems have separate networks, they share the same software.

Given the CCP’s, ahem, curious nature concerning what’s up in the world of its rivals, the Americans want to eliminate any chance that the CCP has access to sensitive data about TikTokkers and could use the platform as a vehicle to spread disinformation and manipulate political outcomes.

TikTok is trying to fight back. But when it used its platform to encourage users to contact their representatives in Congress, the move backfired. Big time.

The BBC reported that the office of one of the co-sponsors of the bill, Florida Congressman Neal Dunn, took 900 calls “many of which were vulnerable school-aged children” with the end result being that “this effort by Bytedance validated the Congressman’s concerns.”

Given the extent to which Chinese political interference has been exposed in Canada in recent years, one might have expected the Justin Trudeau-led government to have spearheaded the battle against Bytedance.

But then again, given the government’s pattern of downplaying and footdragging on virtually all Les Affaires Chinoise, perhaps it’s not that surprising at all. 

Whether it involves the ongoing presence of Chinese “police stations” in the nation’s major cities, the apparent use of spies within the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, and an official commission of inquiry into foreign political interference—triggered by allegations China manipulated nomination battles and even election races in key ridings—the Trudeau government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into action.

Its appointment of Justice Marie-Josee Hogue to head the commission of inquiry came only after the debacle of special rapporteur David Johnson’s perfunctory look into the matter. The revelations regarding the fired scientists at the bio lab in Winnipeg took close to four years to emerge and an attempt to look further into the matter by Conservative MP Michael Chong was shut down recently when the House of Commons ethics committee, thanks to Liberal and NDP MPs, voted against it.

Then there was the matter of Canada taking years to decide that Huawei posed a security threat and banned it from participating in the nation’s 5G networks. This was long after Five Eyes intelligence-pooling allies in Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S. had done so.

If Huawei could constitute a security threat, one might wonder, why wouldn’t the same apply to TikTok?

TikTok Canada has argued that it is not at all controlled by the Chinese government. Steve de Eyre, the company’s director of public policy and government affairs, made that clear to MPs at a House of Commons committee meeting just last fall.

At that same meeting, David Lieber, TikTok’s head of privacy public policy for the Americas, conceded, however, that “it would be irresponsible for me or any other employee of a technology company to make categorical guarantees about what governments are capable of or incapable of in terms of their ability to conduct activities including hacking on their own initiative.”

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with other social media platform heads on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, to discuss child safety online. Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo.

So, given that the U.K., Australia, the European Union, the European Commission, and the European Parliament have all expressed “security concerns” regarding TikTok and India has banned it completely since 2020, it’s unlikely Congress is barking up the wrong tree.

So far, all Canada has done is ban TikTok from being accessed on government smartphones. But the Liberal Party of Canada, as appears to be the case with its rivals, still has an active account.

Another reason for not taking further action could be concern about the consequences. In India, for instance, the departure of TikTok paved the way for Meta’s Instagram to dominate the user-generated video market.

That’s a concern raised by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump who noted that data privacy issues extend to other social media companies as well. Meta, he said, gathers the same information and claims that “they’ll do whatever China wants.”

“When I look at it, I’m not looking to make Facebook double the size,” Trump told CNBC. “If you ban TikTok, Facebook and others—but mostly Facebook—will be the big beneficiary.

“I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people, along with a lot of the media.”

Given that the Trudeau government appears to share Trump’s view of Facebook due to its refusal to be shaken down by the Online News Act, there might be something to that.

But there’s also the chance that, as with all its other files concerning China and the CCP, Canada is just afraid. But whether it’s of Millennials or the Chinese, it’s hard to say. Maybe both.

Ginny Roth: Don’t mistake Poilievre’s big business broadsides for an anti-growth agenda

Commentary

A striking scene took place last Friday—one that doesn’t typically generate much buzz for being an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence: a Canadian conservative addressing a chamber of commerce. But speaking with the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Pierre Poilievre admitted that this was the first chamber of commerce or board of trade that he has met with since becoming the Conservative Party leader 18 months ago. In contrast, he said that he has visited five local union halls and 110 “shop floors” in that time.

His message matched the overall tone he has adopted towards big business in his time as leader—which is to say he was not afraid to mince words in criticizing “utterly useless” corporate lobbyists and the business leaders who fail to stand up for workers.

Rather, he claimed that if he becomes prime minister his “daily obsession” will be to advance the interests of the “working-class” people of this country.

What is behind the strident rhetoric? And does this signal a fundamental shift in the Conservative Party’s adherence to free-market principles?

To answer the first question first, astute political observers have recently homed in on the dismal state of Canada’s GDP per capita. They rightly point out that the powerful statistic is one of the best measures of how individuals and families are experiencing the economy. And as far as it goes, things aren’t looking good. As Pierre Poilievre might put it, people don’t just need jobs, they need powerful paycheques. And when the cost of living is rising as the economy falters, Canadians’ paycheques are feeling…weak.

But as prognosticators begin to chart out what the potential future prime minister would do about the economy, this focus by him and many of his new candidates on cost-of-living—sometimes pejoratively described as economic populism—is leading many to worry that when it comes to governing, he’ll put sloganeering before sound economic principles. They’re concerned he’ll sacrifice solid financial management at the altar of political pandering, avoiding unpopular decisions and attacking, maybe even penalising, the very drivers of economic growth. 

It’s true that Poilievre’s economic policy is likely to be influenced by recent global trends and new externalities—from the rise of China as a bad-faith trading partner to the impact of new technologies on work and culture. And there’s no question that Poilievre’s campaign messaging isn’t especially friendly to the corporate class. But a plan that isn’t tied to real people’s experience of the economy is worthless.

Poilievre and his team are responding to almost a decade of political decision-making that saw workers with weakening paycheques and consumers with rising costs play second fiddle to virtue signalling global climate deals, and climbing taxes, regulations, and winner-picking corporate welfare. For them, fighting for workers means restoring the conditions in which free enterprise can flourish by restoring the baseline conditions for fair dealing. Poilievre may campaign like an economic populist, but when it comes down to it, he’ll govern like a modern fiscal conservative.

It’s hard to blame Canada’s business community for feeling trepidatious about what’s to come. More than a year into his leadership, Poilievre made sure to remind Bay Street executives at a C.D. Howe lunch that he wasn’t all that interested in spending his time meeting with them. Just last week his newest star member of Parliament, Jamil Jivani, took the opportunity in his victory speech to warn “liberal elites” in business to get their priorities straight and worry less about DEI and more about their workers.

It’s not that this commentary is mere rhetoric. Indeed, Poilievre and Jivani are quite serious about the priorities they’re setting. But rather than assuming a focus on these themes will lead to economic interventionism, it’s worth thinking through what underpins them. 

Conservatives know that for wages to go up and prices to go down or stop growing so fast (in other words, to get at that pesky GDP-per-capita problem), our economy needs to grow—especially if our population continues to grow. Left-wing populists may believe the best way to make one person’s piece of the pie bigger is to make another’s smaller, but conservatives—even pro-worker conservatives—understand that the better approach is to make the pie bigger. To make matters more complicated, much of what anemic growth we have had in Canada has been a result of our housing bubble, which Poilievre and his team are planning to help deflate.

Finally, the Conservatives want to “fix the budget.” It’s the third of their top four priorities if you assume their slogans are indicative. And while any meaningful path to balance will include finding savings, more importantly, it will involve driving revenue through economic growth, which, for a frequent Milton Friedman quoter, is going to have to come from lower taxes and deregulation. In other words, Poilievre won’t be able to achieve the Canada that he wants for workers and consumers without growth-oriented, traditionally pro-business policies.

There will no doubt be instances—like weighing whether to approve a merger or takeover or deciding whether to legislate workers back to their jobs—where free market principles will have to be weighed against competing common goods like national security or labour rights. And of course, if a company’s idea of pro-business policy is for the government to preserve protected regulatory status, tax treatment, or a funding envelope, then that is an argument for crony capitalism, not a growth agenda. Business leaders may need to come to terms with not being the heroes of a potential Poilievre government’s economic story.

After all, prioritizing the interests of a small elite is part of how our country got into this mess. But casual watchers should not mistake Poilievre’s distaste for corporate Canada’s trendier priorities with a fundamental discomfort with free market capitalism. In fact, it’s the opposite. For Poilievre, fiscal conservatism and economic populism aren’t incompatible, they’re a match made in heaven.