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New law would allow B.C. to sue over ‘health-related wrongs’

PoliticsNew law would allow B.C. to sue over 'health-related wrongs'


Premier David Eby issues a warning to social media giants and other “faceless corporations” that they’ll be held accountable for harms caused to kids

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The B.C. NDP wants to hold social-media giants accountable for addictive content served to kids, through legislation introduced Thursday that will allow the government to sue corporations for the harm they cause.

Premier David Eby said his message to “big, faceless companies” including social-media giants, vape manufacturers and energy drink makers, is that “you will be held accountable in British Columbia for the harm caused to people.”

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Attorney General Niki Sharma introduced the Public Health Accountability and Cost Recovery Act in the legislature and said it follows the B.C. government’s success in recovering costs from tobacco companies and opioid manufacturers for the devastating health consequences for their products.

During a news conference at the legislature, Eby said young people are suffering from increased anxiety, depression and eating disorders because of the constant stream of online content fed to them by an algorithm.

He cited the “terrifying” story of Carson Cleland, a 12-year-old Prince George boy who died by suicide in October 10 hours after being contacted by a predator through Snapchat and asked to send explicit photographs.

“It is a continuing example of the challenges that parents face keeping kids safe in a time of ubiquitous cellphones and communication by kids using social-media apps,” Eby said.

It’s unconscionable, Eby said, that companies are profiting off of services “that we will never tolerate … in the real world.”

“We would never allow a company to set up a space for kids where grown adults can be invited to contact them, encourage them to share photographs, and then threaten to distribute those photographs with family and friends. That place will be shut down in 10 minutes and proprietors would be in jail.”

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However, companies who “do the exact same thing through cellphones, and the billionaires who run them, resist accountability, resist any suggestion that they have responsibility for the harms that they’re causing,” Eby said.

In addition to companies, directors and officers of those firms can be held liable.

Damages would be recouped by the B.C. government, not individual British Columbians harmed by a product or service. The government can use any damages to pay for hospital treatments, doctor appointments, counselling and preventive measures such as educational programs about the harms of social media.

B.C. Green party Leader Sonia Furstenau said she hopes the government will use the legislation to go after fossil-fuel companies that are “delivering some of the greatest public health harms of any industry in history.”

Sharma side-stepped a question about whether the government is opening the door for lawsuits against oil-and-gas companies or firms that sell alcohol or surgery foods. She said the legislation is deliberately broad so it can apply to any companies that produce products designed to create addiction or that has caused a “population-level harm,” particularly in children and youth.

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Eby zeroed in on vape companies that “deliberately market a product to kids,” which has resulted in an epidemic of vaping among young people across North America.

Asked whether lawsuits, which are often settled out of court, would have any impact in forcing big corporations to change their harmful practices, Eby said similar suits against tobacco companies and Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, have forced them into bankruptcy.

B.C. United party Leader Kevin Falcon said he supports the principle of holding companies accountable for harms caused, but he thinks with six months before the provincial election, the legislation is “performative.”

Emily Laidlaw, an associate professor of law at the University of Calgary, praised B.C. for leading the way in Canada in introducing legislation to address the fact that social-media companies exist with little government regulation. She said there’s a joke among fellow professors that her course on internet law is actually a course about “non-law.”

“We need provinces to step up,” said Laidlaw, who holds the Canada Research Chair in cybersecurity law. “This is a social harm. So this isn’t something that we can just leave to individual families to try to sort out (through) one-off private litigation.”

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B.C.’s intent to crack down on social-media companies follows a move in the U.S., where a multi-state coalition of 41 attorneys general sued Meta, alleging it damages young people’s mental health and illegally harvests their data.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that tech companies can’t be held liable for posts on their platforms but there’s no such law in Canada.

Laidlaw said she thinks the coming decade will be a “reckoning” for social-media companies that “push harmful content to youth.”

Consumer protection laws require cars, playgrounds and homes to be safe, she said, so the same standard should apply to internet companies.

kderosa@postmedia.com

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