Facebook tests honest ads in Canada

Facebook hasn’t been completely honest. They haven’t made it clear how we pay for the service.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network with 2 billion active users –I’m one of them. What I get from Facebook is the opportunity to connect with friends and family. What Facebook gets is $52 billion a year in advertising, an average of $80 per North American user annually. I get a valuable service and Facebook gets $80. But what’s troubling me is: just who is trying to influence me? Who have I sold myself to?

The answer hasn’t been clear because the true source of postings isn’t always obvious.  An investigation by the U.S. Senate revealed that Russians anonymously influenced the outcome of the last presidential election. Facebook told the Senate that Russian agents placed 80,000 posts that were seen by 150 million Americans.

Earlier this year, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos said that Russians bought 3,000 ads amounting to $100,000 between June 2015 and May of 2017. In violation to Facebook’s policy, 470 were connected to inauthentic accounts. Not all the ads were overtly political.

“Rather,” says Stamos, “the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

Such propaganda sneaks by our defences unnoticed because of the homey feel of Facebook; you don’t expect disinformation to be bundled with posts from friends.

Other Russian accounts weren’t subtle at all. One Facebook posting was from a fake group called “United Muslims of America.” It targeted actual Muslims. The group claimed that Hillary Clinton admitted that the U.S. “created, funded and armed” al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Another Russian Facebook group, “Army of Jesus,” featured Jesus arm-wrestling Satan in which Clinton is Satan. Trump is “an honest man who cares deeply for his country,” the group added.

Facebook knows you well. They know where you live, what you like and what you share, where you travel, what you do for a living, when you are online and for how long. Facebook knows you in unimaginable detail. There are more than 52,000 Facebook categories used to microtarget ads to your interests and desires according ProPublica: subtleties of your character that that even you may not even be aware of.

In an attempt to clear the fog of deception, Facebook Canada has announced that they are going to pull the curtain back and reveal more about advertisers. Ads will now have to be associated with a Facebook page –that’s already standard with brand-name products. And ads will reveal how you have been targeted.

The U.S. Senate wants Facebook to go further with their proposed Honest Ads Act. The act would require disclosure of the rate charged for the ad, the name of candidates in the case of political ads, and contact information of the purchaser.

In the past CEO Mark Zuckerberg has resisted, claiming that Facebook is just a technology company. Now it’s becoming abundantly clear that Facebook is not just a sharing platform but a publisher, and as such must be responsible for its content.

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Indigenous labour is an untapped resource

Canadians opened their hearts and homes to Syrian refugees last year. It was a warm humanitarian gesture as well as an economic imperative: Canada relies on immigrants to sustain our work force.

    image: Government of Canada

Treatment of our Indigenous people is puzzling in both regards. Refugees from Indian Reserves do not receive a warm welcome. Communities don’t sponsor Indigenous families and put them up in homes. They are not being bombed but they are fleeing abominable conditions: mouldy housing, undrinkable water, poor education, appalling health care and little hope for employment. Instead of being helped, First Nations refugees often end up on city streets with few options for integration into society.

Not only are Indigenous Canadians uninvited in cities but the labour resource they represent is wasted.

The Centre for the Study of Living Standards released a report earlier this month entitled “The Contribution of Aboriginal People to Future Labour Force Growth in Canada.” The 36 page report outlines the wasted labour resource of Indigenous Canadians.

Indigenous citizens are the youngest, fastest growing demographic in Canada.

To start with, all Indigenous people are underemployed. More critically, participation of the 15-24 age group is 12 per cent lower than average. Only one-half of Indigenous youth are employed. That untapped resource could contribute to future labour force growth. It’s worse in the North where participation in the labour force is one-fifth the average.

If Canada’s Indigenous work force were developed, they would contribute to one-fifth of the future national labour growth. That contribution could be in the North, where they are most needed. As the global climate change warms and the climate of the North warms disproportionately, opportunities will open for jobs in resource extraction, infrastructure, housing and tourism. The expansion of the Indigenous work force In the North could comprise 83 per cent of total northern growth.

What would it take? The report states rather dryly:

“Indigenous people also face deficiencies in hours worked, employment, income by level of education and health among others. Progress must be based on Indigenous autonomy and this in turn will require strengthening administrative and managerial capacities, most likely under new institutional arrangements.”

In more vital words, it will take a reversal of our colonial past which was designed to dominate and assimilate Indigenous peoples. The Trudeau government made a good start when it divided the Indigenous portfolio in two with Jane Philpott becoming minister of Indigenous services and Carolyn Bennett becoming minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and Northern Affairs.

Some criticise the move as increased bureaucracy but the split was recommended in 1996 by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Both ministers are capable I can only hope they will succeed in ending the anachronistic Indian Act.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations is optimistic:

“First Nations are working to move beyond the Indian Act and re-asserting our jurisdiction and sovereignty over our own lands, title and rights.”

Let’s bring our Indigenous brothers and sisters in from the cold. And if compassion doesn’t motivate Canadians, maybe a bleak economic future without them will.

The definition of nation needs updating

I didn’t give much thought about whether Canada was a nation or not until I read Andrew Coyne’s article in Canada’s History magazine (June/July 2017). He argues that we are not.

George-Étienne Cartier. Image: Encyclopedia Britannica

The fathers of confederation believed they were creating a nation. George-Étienne Cartier, a key player in bringing Quebec into confederation, referred to Canada as “political nationality. . . with which neither the national origin nor the religion of any individual would interfere . . . In our federation we should have Catholic and Protestant, English, French, Irish and Scotch and each by his efforts and his success would increase the prosperity and glory of the Confederacy.”

That goal of a bilingual nation began to unravel early. Quebec gave equal powers to French and English in parliament but Ontario didn’t. Then Ontario premier Oliver Mowat said that each province was sovereign in its own sphere and Canada was a “compact.” When the first of the Western province, Manitoba, join confederation in 1870, Cartier’s dream of a bilingual nation was alive. Just 20 years later, Manitoba declared English to be the only official language.

The addition of more Western provinces only fuelled Western alienation, not nation-building.

Quebec had no trouble identifying itself as a nation and viewed the rest of Canada as “les autres.” Prime Minister Harper passed a resolution that “the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.”

If Canada is “duex nations,” as former Prime Minister Lester Pearson imagined, then who are the members of the other nation? Am I a member of the Rest of Canada nation -a kind of leftover?  The concept of an “English Nation” seems a bit silly.

And what about Canada’s 600 hundred First Nations? Where do they fit in this scheme? When First Nations seek nation-to-nation negotiations, with whom do they imagine they will be negotiating – some hybrid state of French and English Nations?

If Canada isn’t a nation, then surely it became a country 150 years ago. Nope, says, historian Ed Whitcomb. If a country is a land where its sovereignty and independence is recognized by other countries, then Canada didn’t become a country until it obtained independence from Britain until 1931.

Well then, Canada was founded 150 years ago, right? No, before it was a, ah, not-nation-county, Canada was a province. Quebec and Ontario combined in 1791 to form the United Province of Canada.

Prime Minister Trudeau doesn’t think we are a nation either. “Canada is the world’s first post-national state.” Canadians are global citizens.

Coyne, Whitcomb, and Trudeau make some good points but I still think Canada is a nation. It’s the definition of “nation” that is too restricting. Canada is a mosaic: a nation of nations. We are defined as a caring nation; exemplified by our universal health care system. We have elevated compromise to a virtue through our diversity of cultures, religions, and languages. We are a nation defined by our expansive North and by winter. “Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.” Canada is a thought-experiment; a bold idea which captures the world’s imagination.

 

 

 

 

 

TPP rises from the ashes

Rumours of the death of the TPP are greatly exaggerated. After President Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I congratulated him: “Thank you, Mr. Trump, for killing the TPP.”

 image: WMAL radio

I now realize that Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP was not an indicator of leadership, but a sign of retreat from the international community. It’s just another indication of the degree of U.S. marginalization. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is yet another indicator that we must carry on without him.

Where the original TPP had a number of flaws, the new TPP can be negotiated to Canada’s advantage. Canada was disadvantaged in the first round because we were latecomers: we had to accept what had already been negotiated.

Canada is a trading nation and as such, we depend on fair trade agreements. As politicians like to do, I’ll list my five conditions for acceptance of the new TPP -dubbed TPP11 after the number of countries left to pick up the pieces.

Investor-state dispute settlement provisions (ISDS) should not be part of TPP11. This allows companies to seek damages from governments when local regulations interfere with profit-making.

When disputes arise, as they are bound to do, they should be settled in a transparent manner by judges, similar to the International Court, not in private between arbitrators as is now done with NAFTA.

Environmental standards should not be part of TPP11. Environmental damage is seen by industry as a cost of doing business -a price which indigenous peoples and future generations will pay. Environmental standards need to be negotiated by separate accords like the Paris Agreement.

Intellectual property and should be excluded as well. Artists and small software companies need protection, but too often concern for intellectual property masks large corporate interests such as Disney.

Exclude health regulations as well. They are an excuse for Big Pharma to extend the patent life of drugs that could be made cheaper with generics.

TPP11 will be a meeting of middle powers now that the U.S. is out, and China and Europe were never in. Canada can then negotiate from a position of strength when it comes to superpowers. Trump favours individual bilateral deals because he imagines an advantage over smaller countries. But if those smaller countries can form a block where there is an alternative to the bully-tactics of Trump.

The TTP11 would give Canada access to markets not previously available, says Hugh Stephens of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. It will jump-start bilateral talks that were going nowhere, like those between Japan and Canada. With Japan in the TTP11, negotiations can proceed. And trade agreements under the umbrella of TPP11 can take place with other countries where Canada has no bilateral agreements such as Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Vietnam and Malaysia.

And in countries where Canada does have bilateral agreements, such as Mexico, Chile and Peru, the TTP11 can tie up loose ends.

Whereas Canada was a follower in the original TTP, we can be a leader in fair trade under TTP11. With the U.S. retreating into a fog of befuddlement, Canada needs to step up on the world stage.

 

 

Canada is a young country. Or I’m old.

Canada is 150 years old this year. Since I’m one-half that age, Canada must be a young country. Or I’m old. It must be the former.

canada-150-horizontal-colour

We had humble beginnings, Canada and I. I was born in Jasper Place, now part of Edmonton but in 1941 it was a rudimentary town. We had no water or sewer. The bucket in the indoor toilet had to be emptied regularly to the outhouse in the back. The honey wagon would clean it out once in a while. Water was delivered by a truck to a cistern in the basement. A hand-operated pump supplied water to the kitchen. Milk was delivered by a horse-drawn cart.

Canada was born with only four provinces at confederation. Like Jasper Place, it lay outside the huge territory it would eventually encompass.

Canada was rebranded as much as it was born in 1876. John Ralston Saul, author of A Fair Nation, argues that Canada had already been a federation for 250 years before that. We are a Métis nation, comprised of indigenous people, English and French. Before 1876 our federation comprised mostly of indigenous people, numbering one-half million.

By 1947 we moved to a suburb of Edmonton called Bonnie Doon, Scottish for “pleasant, rolling countryside.” We lived only one block away from Saint-Jean College where Catholic priests taught students who were about to enter the clergy. Now it’s the only francophone University west of Manitoba, a campus of the University of Alberta. The college allowed neighbourhood kids to use their outdoor rink when they weren’t playing hockey. That’s where I learned to skate.

The broken hockey sticks made fine bows as long as they had a straight grain. We carved them with a draw knife and used them to hunt rabbits with bows and arrows in the nearby Mill Creek. The rabbits didn’t have much to worry about because of the thick bush and our poor aim. I wore horsehide moccasins in the winter which warm even on the coldest days. We would often spend entire winter days sledding on the hills in the ravine.

By the time Canada was officially born, our indigenous people had been decimated by disease which they had no resistance to, and by conflict with their European guests.

However, the 250 years of gestation of Canada left its imprint on the fledgling nation. Canada is not just a collection of its people; it is a product of our collective consciousness. John Belshaw, former Thompson Rivers University professor, puts it this way:

“Scholars draw a distinction between historical consciousness and collective memory. The former is something on which we reflect but often forget. History as a discipline consists of facts – – objective and recitable. Collective memory, on the other hand, is an ongoing process that builds a shared and more nuanced understanding of the past, (Walrus magazine).”

While not exactly a Baby Boomer, I identified with the Hippy Movement. I smoked my first joint in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, the birthplace of the counterculture movement. I naively believed John Lennon when he implored the world to “give peace a chance.”

We have done OK, Canada and I, but we’re still young and have a lot to learn. Happy sesquicentennial, Canada!

Canada’s new economic reality

 

As Canada emerges from the Dark Decade, we need to get back on track with a modern economy.

The Harper government’s plan to make Canada an “energy superpower” was a disaster for a number of reasons. The plan reversed our progress as an industrial nation; it insured that Canadians would become the highest per capita emitters of CO2; it failed to anticipate the vagaries commodity markets.

lumberjack

As long as we are hewers of wood and drawers of oil, we are just a colony of economic powerhouses. Mel Watkins identified this failed strategy as the “staples trap” in 1963.

“The tendency for the country to tilt its economic resources and policies in support of one particularly in-demand staple or another that, inevitably, leaves the economy struggling when the staple falls out of favour (David Parkinson, Globe and Mail, July 2, 2016).”

Watkins, now 84, looks back on the Dark Decade: “We bet the farm on oil prices staying high and rising, but that hasn’t happened and, it would seem, is unlikely to in any near future. We need to go back to the 1970s when there was genuine debate in Canada about industrial policy transcending staples.”

Back then, after World War II, Canada had shifted its workforce from agriculture to factories. By 1999, the high-value sectors of automotive, aerospace, transportation, electronics and consumer goods employed 60 per cent of the workforce. At the same time, the resource-sectors of agriculture, energy mining and forestry together only employed one-quarter.

What seduced Canada back into the staples trap? In a word: globalization. We gleefully sent manufacturing jobs to low wage countries with low environmental standards. Exports of metal ores doubled since 2000. Energy exports increased by 55 per cent at the same time as auto exports fell by 11 per cent. Economist Jim Stanford sums it up:

“The global commodities boom shifted Capital and policy attention towards extractive industries. Canada’s economy has been moving down, rather than up, the economic value chain.”

We’ve these cycles before where expansion in one part of the world triggers a global commodities boom. This time it was the modernization of China that triggered the boom. In the past it was the reconstruction of Europe and Japan after the war, and before that it was the rise of the U.S. as an industrial power.

Parkinson looks to future: “For the oil and gas business, the long term prospects look even more grim. The growing global momentum for green energy looks poised to steadily erode demand for fossil fuels over the coming decades. We may one day look back on the oil-price collapse of 21014-15 as the beginning of the end for the industry.”

During the Dark Decade, Canada invested heavily, not only in political resolve to exploit the dirty tar sands, but in the human and financial capital needed to dig the stuff up. It will take time to shift gears but Canada must shed its colonial mentality. It’s happening. Enbridge has invested $1 billion in wind-energy. Alberta has budgeted $3.4 billion for renewable energy.

B.C.’s government still has grandiose dreams of a fossil-fuel economy with liquefied natural gas. While Premier Clark hasn’t yet admitted it, that plan is history.

Why carbon storage won’t save us

Politicians can be expected to act irrationally during election years. By that measure, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is acting as expected.

SaskPower

A rational, albeit flawed, argument is that Saskatchewan can produce clean electricity from dirty coal by capturing the carbon and selling it. It’s the equivalent of selling your garbage.

Carbon capture holds promise to rescue Premier Wall from a problem of geography. Unlike B.C., Saskatchewan has few hydro dams and lots of coal. In promoting carbon capture, Wall attempts to position himself both as a climate defender and friend of Big Coal.

At first glance carbon capture seems magical. The technology works some of the time and Cenovus Energy of Calgary agreed to buy the carbon dioxide from Saskpower. The plan is for Cenovus to buy all of the CO2 produced by the Boundary Dam generating/capture site, a total of one Mega tonnes a year. Cenovus use some of the CO2 to pressurize old oil wells near Weyburn, forcing the remains up to the surface and some would be simply be stored in underground caverns.

Irrationality number one: CO2 would be captured, then used to recover more fossil fuels which would be burned to produce more CO2.

Then there’s Wall’s obstinate posturing in advance of the meeting of the premiers with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for talks on a national climate strategy on March 3. The feds hope to have a deal in place for a minimum carbon price that would allow provinces to use their own mechanisms to achieve the pricing. They aim to have a deal with a minimum of $15/tonne in six months.

Wall flatly rejects a broad-based carbon tax: “I’ve already made it clear … that if we’re re-elected, our government will not be pursuing any tax increases or new taxes, and neither would we support any new national taxes.”

Irrationality number two: The Saskatchewan premier doesn’t want a level playing field. He wants other provinces to pay for carbon pricing so his province would have a competitive advantage. Alberta has plans for a price of $30/tonne. “I don’t want a level playing field for our province. I want this to be the most competitive place that it possibly can be … and that does not include a new carbon tax, especially now, given the state of the economy.”

That leads to the third irrationality. My question is this: “If your carbon capture technology works so well, premier, why worry about pricing carbon that you won’t produce?” Carbon in the ground won’t cost producers anything.

The embarrassing answer is that the technology doesn’t work that well. When the plant is working properly, it captures 90 per cent of the carbon dioxide but, in fact, because of mechanical issues, the facility has only operates 45 per cent of the time. It works so poorly that Saskpower has to pay penalties to Cenovus for not supplying enough CO2 as specified in their contract.

The problem is not unique to Saskatchewan. There are only 15 such sites in the world. China has abandoned theirs. The costly, complicated technology is wishful thinking. Its chief product is political irrationality in election years.