technology

Speculation rife on value of ‘Christchurch Call’

Last week the Prime Minister announced she would be leading a call to bring together tech companies and governments to stop terrorism and violent extremism form spreading on social media platforms.

Alongside French President Emmanual Macron, Jacinda Ardern will try to get governments and tech companies to agree to the “Christchurch Call”, which will be a pledge to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online”.

The text of that agreement is currently being negotiated and will be signed on May 15, but speculation is already rife as to what it will contain, who will sign up, and whether it will be effective. 

These last two questions are functions of one another, as the effectiveness of the agreement could determine which companies and governments sign up. 

Paul Brislen of Brislen communications says that narrowing down many grievances with social media to what is achievable is crucial to the call’s effectiveness. 

“There are a number of things they should be looking at. The trick will be narrowing it down to something that is achievable because there are so many things that are getting out of control with the world of social media that need a regulator to step in,” he said. 

“Trying to stay focused is going to be critical,” he said. 

Brislen believes one thing that would help would be focusing specifically on what went wrong in the Christchurch terror attack. 

“For that, it’s the broadcasting of live video and then the subsequent sharing of that video even after it had been identified as being in breach of New Zealand law,” he said.

At this stage, it looks like the Government is keen to focus on the issues of terrorism and violent extremism to avoid wading into more knotty policy areas like hate speech, but even this had its challenges. 

Victoria University of Wellington media studies lecturer Peter Thompson said just defining what terrorism was presented difficulties. 

“It’s not a straightforward thing to decide what is and isn’t terrorism: live-streaming mass murder, well yes, but how do you decide which groups are considered terrorists or not?” he said. 

Brislen said there were already some technical solutions available for these problems. This meant the remaining questions were how governments decided to regulate and what sort of “big stick” they would wield to get social media giants to fall in line. 

Brislen said it was significant in itself that governments and tech companies were gathering around the table to discuss solutions. 

Victoria University's Peter Thompson said international solutions should not distract New Zealand from what was achievable domestically.

“It’s great that a conversation at that level is happening, but if you wait for them to come up with the perfect mouse trap, then you might be better off seeing what you can do at home,” he said. 

While international discussion was important, there were still several domestic levers available to the Government should it choose to use them. 

These could include the option of forcing internet service providers (or ISPs) to block certain websites that shared extremist content. Some ISPs including Spark, Vodafone, and 2Degrees voluntarily blocked access to websites hosting copies of the alleged gunman’s video.

However, a joint statement released afterwards said the ISPs felt they were the “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” and called on Facebook, Twitter and Google to do more. 

Netsafe CEO Martin Cocker said the more tech companies that got involved with the call, the more generic it was likely to become.

However, he was hopeful some change could be achieved. 

“If those big tech companies can agree the pillars of a framework, then that would be progress,” he said. 

He said he hoped the changes would lead to countries and companies imposing some level of consistency on the way social media operated around the world. 

“Anything that leads to alignment between the way the tech companies operate and the law that we run in this country is good for New Zealanders, so I’m optimistic."

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