A surprising ally on greater tech regulation

Critics calling for greater regulation of social media networks in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack have a somewhat unlikely ally - a president of tech giant Microsoft.

A Facebook livestream of the shootings quickly multiplied and spread around the internet, with technology companies struggling to keep up with millions of attempts to share the video.

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer told a Wellington audience on Monday the attack had to be a learning moment for the tech sector, which had been too slow to adapt after previous failings.

“The tech sector needs to do more on its own, the tech sector needs to do more with governments and NGOs, [and] we need to recognise that the law, regulation and governments have an increasing role to play in this space.”

Smith said it was incumbent on all tech companies to find solutions, not just those considered to be the worst offenders.

In his remarks - preceded by a lengthy blog post about the attacks - Smith said companies needed to put a greater emphasis on preventing the abuse of their technology through both technological and human processes.

“People in government should reject this notion that somehow technology is so fast moving or magical that they can’t keep up.”

The sector also needed to respond more effectively in the wake of a crisis, with Smith mooting the idea of a “virtual command centre” where companies could work together to share information quickly and directly without restricting communications in the public interest.

Finally, the toxicity of digital discourse had to be addressed, as it had in recent years “almost created a legitimacy for conduct online that none of us would tolerate in person”.

That, mixed with less exposure to different points of view online, had created “a very dangerous and potent combination” which had to be tackled.

After a laissez-faire approach to regulation in recent decades, Smith said countries had to work together to develop a common approach to technology norms.

“People in government should reject this notion that somehow technology is so fast moving or magical that they can’t keep up.”

Microsoft president Brad Smith says governments should not believe the myth that they cannot keep up with the pace of technological change. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, who has taken Facebook to task over its refusal to engage with his office in the wake of the attacks, said Smith was “right on the money” when it came to the need for greater restrictions and accountability.

“When the tech companies started, they were simply providing pipes along which messages could be delivered - they were the postal service and we never held the postal service accountable for the content of the messages being delivered,” Edwards said.

“We have seen such a shift, a whole lot more active curation and aggregation of messages, amplification of messages, and that has transformed that landscape and I don’t think that distinction is tenable any longer.”

While some have noted that Microsoft’s focus on privacy and ethics issues aligned with its reliance on product and software sales, rather than targeted advertising, Edwards said that did not detract from the validity of its points.

If technology companies did not engage more responsibly in conversations with governments, they would begin to see “a regulatory appetite that will be quite confronting for them”.

“Everything I see tells me that there is a sea change occurring, and in fact we’ve reached the tipping point where the business case for these tech giants to sit at the table and participate in the conversation about how do we regulate is upon them, because if they don’t it will be done to them.”

“This is a catalysing moment...we should try and at least get something positive out of this horrifying experience of national shame.”

Edwards said Facebook’s failure to speak to him was not a personal slight, but “a failure to display any capacity for self-reflection” following the attacks and the criticisms raised.

“It’s not a product that is safe, we know that now - where is the acknowledgment from them about that, what are they going to do about that? That is the conversation I’m frustrated that we’re not having...

“This is a catalysing moment...we should try and at least get something positive out of this horrifying experience of national shame.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who met Smith on Monday evening in what a spokesman described as a “very productive” conversation, told media earlier in the day a number of social media outlets had made proactive contact to explain how they were tackling the spread of videos.

It was clear that changes were needed to how social media platforms managed the content placed on them, Ardern said.

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