As the second anniversary of the Christchurch Call approaches, the pledge by the United States to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online is a significant step.

The United States was an obvious missing link when the first summit was held in Paris on May 15 two years ago.

In a White House statement on Saturday from spokesperson Jen Psaki, the United States said it “applauds language in the Christchurch Call emphasising the importance of respecting human rights and the rule of law, including the protection of freedom of expression.

“In joining the Christchurch Call, the United States will not take steps that would violate the freedoms of speech and association protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, nor violate reasonable expectations of privacy,’’ the statement read.

At the time of the first Christchurch Call in France, the United States was led by then-President Donald Trump, who chose not to send anyone to the Call despite having a representative from his administration in Paris at the G7.

Facebook also didn’t send a senior leader representative in May 2019 – Nick Clegg attended in place of Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg.

The Christchurch Call was developed in the immediate wake of an attack on two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, where 51 people were murdered and 40 wounded.

It’s designed as a voluntary framework where global governments and tech companies pledge to work towards stopping violent content from being posted online, and preventing such content from spreading so rapidly.

On Monday Paul Ash, the Special Representative on Digital and Cyber for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office, and Henri Verdier, the French Ambassador for Digital Affairs held a joint global press conference to kick off this year’s Summit.

It’s ahead of the second anniversary on Saturday May 15 of Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron meeting to kickstart the agreement.

On Saturday the two leaders will jointly chair the Call meeting, which will be attended virtually by supporters across government, industry and civil society.

The aim of the virtual summit is to “take stock of progress, refocus our shared efforts and commit to a refreshed work plan to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online’’.

A stocktake has been done in the lead-up to the summit to assess the many ways in which supporters are fulfilling their commitments to the Christchurch Call.

The number of tech companies, and countries, who have joined the Call has increased over the past two years.

Paul Ash says there’s been “substantial progress in a number of areas”.

Were something like March 15 to happen again today, Ash says there are new protocols and crisis response mechanisms that would kick into place.

Tech companies are able to identify terrorism content much more quickly and “there are much better processes to identify that”.

“Governments are much better prepared for this now than they were before…there are national protocols for responding that have been tested,” he said.

The United States had already been partnering with the Call on an informal basis but its pledge to join enhances that commitment. Russia and China continued not to be part of the Call.

Ardern said: “After the 15 March terrorist attacks, New Zealand said that what happened here should not happen anywhere else and I’m encouraged by the progress made since the atrocities committed in 2019.

”The focus of the Christchurch Call community must be on making tangible progress, and the findings from the stocktake report are promising.”

Macron said: “The more tech platforms there are committed to implementing the commitments of the Call, the stronger we will be collectively in limiting the use of the internet by terrorists to plan and spread their hate – and preventing terrorist acts from happening in the first place.” 

Both leaders said increasing tech company support would be a priority for the New Zealand and French Call team in the coming year, as would progress on understanding more about the effects of algorithmic processes and responding effectively to the full range of terrorist and violent extremist content, including in emergency responses.

“I have no doubt that progress to date has already made it harder for those pushing terrorist or violent extremist content online,” Ardern said.

“While our progress in the first year has been good, there is still more work to do.

“We must continue to work towards better understanding the algorithms that promote content online, to identify intervention points and prevent exploitation by malicious actors.”

Macron wanted to see providers take a stronger stance on content delivered across all of their services, in addition to that hosted on social media platforms.

“The Call community can be proud of its work so far on this issue, but there remains more to do.”

He said: “It remains important that Call supporters keep delivering on substance, while protecting a free, open and secure internet and respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Ardern added: “We will continue to honour those who were killed and injured on March 15, and since, by maintaining our focus on these efforts, and trying to prevent what happened to them from happening to anyone else.” 

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

Leave a comment