Skip to main content

Social media algorithms and sextortion: B.C. bringing down the legislative hammer


British Columbia is about to roll out new legal tools to fight back against online sexual exploitation, while pursuing social media giants for the "harms" of their platforms in the same vein as tobacco and opioid producers.

Premier David Eby laid out plans to bring a legislative hammer down on sextortion attempts, with the implementation of an expedited process through the Civil Resolution Tribunal set to begin Monday that would allow complainants to get an order for specific images to be removed from social media platforms.

“This includes a person's private images, near-nude images, videos, livestreams, (and) digitally altered images, also known as deep fakes,” explained Attorney General Niki Sharma, describing sextortion as sexualized violence.

“No matter who you are, what your age is, you have the right to privacy and safety. No one has the right to hurt you.” 

Eby also announced Friday that his government would be introducing “public harms legislation” in the upcoming legislative session that will be written much like suits brought against pharmaceutical companies

“We believe that they have negligently designed these algorithms in a way that promotes their profits at the expense of the mental health of our kids and that's having very real costs,” he said, describing the rise in eating disorders, injuries from extreme stunts copycatted from social media, and educational programs for online safety as concrete expenses born by government.

CTV News has reached out to Meta, the parent company of Facebook, for a response to Eby’s comments and the incoming legislation, but the company has not responded.

A heart-wrenching example

Sharma and Eby spoke alongside the parents of a 12 year-old sextortion victim who died by suicide after being threatened by an online predator in the fall.

Carson Cleland was a happy kid who liked the outdoors, and his parents believe he panicked when the “girl” he thought he’d sent intimate pictures to started demanding money and threatening to send the images to his friend list. 

“We stand here today as two broken parents, trying to make sure this doesn't happen to another family, to another child, to another person,” said Ryan Cleland in an emotional speech.

“If we could offer anything or any advice on the matter, please remember that you are never alone, that there is always somebody or someone out there – either a friend, family or teacher – that'll be there to help you,” added Carson’s mom, Nicola Smith. 

Prevention still the best route

Tiana Sharifi, founder of B.C.’s Exploitation Education Institute, provided training to the Ministry of Public Safety in preparation for Monday’s launch of the image-purging mechanism. She described it as an important tool, but one that shouldn’t be relied on entirely to address sextortion or abuse.

“In an ideal situaiton, we want to prevent it,” she said. “Sextortion has really become its own pandemic; the rates are rising.”

Multiple police agencies published warnings last year about sweetheart scams or extortion tied to intimate images, in a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.

Sharifi is encouraged that the new policies to make it easier to purge online material cover "not just sexual and nude photos and videos," but also "things like deep fakes."

"So we now are really keeping up to date with technology we're seeing," she said. Top Stories

Stay Connected