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B.C. ‘classic consumer protection’ law raising unintended consequence concerns

Business leaders calls legislation allowing government to sue social media companies too broad
B.C. legislation ostensibly allowing government to sue social media companies is under fire from business groups and parts of the political opposition for being broad. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

Attorney-General Niki Sharma says law-abiding businesses operating in B.C. have nothing to worry about from new legislation that allows government to sue media giants and other companies.

But parts of B.C.’s political opposition and business organizations fear the Public Health Accountability and Cost Recovery Act is too broad and will give government too much power, as the legislature continues to debate it.

Sharma had tabled the legislation last month. Targeted primarily at social media, it would allow government to recover public costs associated with the promotion, marketing and distribution of products deemed harmful, building on previous legislation that enabled litigation against tobacco and opioid manufacturers.

B.C. would be able to claim compensation for hospital treatments, doctor appointments and preventative measures used to address the risk of disease, illness or injury arising from such products. Company directors and officers could also be held liable.

Premier David Eby first signalled the legislation in January following the suicide of 12-year-old Prince George boy Carson Cleland, who had fallen victim to online sextortion after having shared intimate images.

“This (legislation) is about companies that have knowingly done something wrong and profited off their behaviour,” Sharma said. “(If) you are causing harm to British Columbia knowingly and not abiding by the laws, then we will meet you in court.”

Sharma made these comments when asked about a letter signed by 23 business groups critical of the legislation. They include the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, B.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Retail of Council of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses and industry-specific associations representing restaurants, brewers, wine makers and distillers.

RELATED: Legislation to allow B.C. to sue social media giants, others for ‘hurting people’

The letter calls on government to pause the legislation with an eye toward refining it.

“As opposed to a targeted approach (aimed at social media), this legislation is written in the broadest possible fashion,” it reads. “The result is that there is a real risk that this legislation could cause some to consider alternatives to investing in B.C., raise costs, or, at worst, relocate existing B.C.-based operations.”

Sharma said she is happy to speak with anyone in the business community. “(I) have been taking their calls and speaking with them, but I just wanted to make that (the intent of the legislation) clear.”

The bill currently sits at second reading.

Several B.C. United members have questioned both its intent and potential effect.

“This legislation suggests a reactive stance seeking reparations after the fact rather than proactively preventing public health crises,” Ian Paton, MLA for Delta South, said. “Is this truly what the government can offer to British Columbians?”

Dan Davies, MLA for Peace River North, asked rhetorically whether this “vague” piece of legislation allows government to go after restaurants.

“Are the Burger Kings and McDonald’s and A&Ws — I’m sorry I missed a whole bunch of other fast food restaurants out there — now going to be held accountable for all the health impacts that we have around eating out? It’s not just fast food. It’s eating out in general.”

B.C. NDP MLA for Richmond-Queensborough Aman Singh dismissed the criticism.

“This is classic consumer protection legislation that our old friend Ralph Nader would be very, very proud of,” he said. “What the bill does is give the David the tools against the big, monolithic Goliaths — the corporations.

“The sky is not falling. Your individual Subway is not going to get sued because you ate a mortadella sandwich or whatever.”

Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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