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Christchurch Call - two views

Sarah Putt, Contributor. 16 May 2019, 2:42 pm

Overnight 17 countries, the European Commission and seven tech companies signed up to the 'Christchurch Call', an international pledge to combat online extremist content, that was initiated by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, following the terrorist attacks in Christchurch in March.

Will the Christchurch Call be effective? There is the hopeful view and the cynical view.

The hopeful view

The fact that Governments and tech giants got together to try to solve the issue of online extremism in the first place has not been done before. As has often been said, this is not an issue that any one country, or company, can solve alone.

In the document itself, the tech companies pledge to prioritise moderation of terrorist and violent material, close accounts where appropriate and to review the way algorithms and other processes may drive users towards these videos. These are good actions to undertake.

It has prompted action from Facebook, which announced this week that it will restrict users who break the rules of livestreaming. Nick Clegg, spokesperson for Facebook says if these measures were in place in March, then the gunman would not have been able to livestream the terrorist attacks. In addition, Facebook is investing $7.5m in improving AI technology to detect extremist material.

The cynical view

There are no consequences for any signatories, no binding regulation, no financial penalties, as the document points out: "the call outlines collective, voluntary commitments.". If there is no immediate threat to their lucrative business models, then why would the tech companies implement meaningful change?

The US hasn't signed up. It appears to be concerned about limitations around free speech which is enshrined in the country's First Amendment. Without the US - where the tech giants operate - it may be even more toothless.

The tech company CEOs didn't turn up, so do they really care? If they did, we might see stronger measures such as making their users apply for a license before they can use the livestreaming functions.


I'd suggest that the US Tech companies care very much about the Christchurch Call and making sure they don't alienate the countries that did sign up (which includes the second and fourth most populous - India and Indonesia). Especially when you consider that there are 'three internets' emerging - there is the one led by US (free speech, almost anything goes), the one championed by Europe (becoming more regulated - think GDPR legislation), and China. Most of the companies are banned in China, they are not going to want to lose too much ground in the 'European internet'. Having signed up to the pledge they have a moral obligation to introduce meaningful change, and this will be closely monitored.

Finally, the Christchurch Call may also provide the answer to whether New Zealand should/will change its own laws in light of the terrorist attacks, as Australia has. By leading the way for an international declaration on combating extremism online, the Prime Minister's most tangible result in Paris may be that she has avoided the need for a binding legal response in her own country.


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David Lane 16 May 2019, 3:08 pm

Good post, Sarah. Seems to me, the NZ Gov't would be in a stronger position to act if, alongside their relatively mild criticisms of these US corporations (who still don't pay tax in NZ) the very same Gov't was continuing to *use* the services of these corporations as part of NZ's own democratic processes (e.g. quite a few Select Committee hearing are streamed online *only* via Facebook). The fact the Gov't makes out that it's too hard for them to offer these services outside of Facebook's platform (it's trivially easy and very low cost for anyone with a modicum of tech competence) doesn't strengthen their case. Our gov't should be "open first". Proprietary walled garden second, if at all.

As it stands, the dependence our Gov't has on these corporate products and services make it very tricky for them to avoid legitimate accusations of hypocrisy... I think that seriously hampers the Gov'ts ability to really take effective action, with teeth (which is what we need). A web bus ticket isn't enough to slap sense into these folks who, in the end, only care what their shareholders think.

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