Insights

17/05/19

Terrorist and violent extremist online content, a whole-of-society response

Jacinda Ardern and Emmanuel Macron have rallied world leaders and tech companies this week at an international summit in Paris to announce the ‘Christchurch Call’, a pledge for greater action to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online”.

This follows the horrific events in New Zealand’s city of Christchurch in March this year, which saw a gunman kill 51 people at two mosques, all streamed live on Facebook, and subsequently shared online.

Described by Ardern as a “roadmap to action”, the Christchurch Call seeks to maintain pressure on big tech companies in the wake of the attack to do more to identify and remove extremist content from their platforms, and calls on both governments and tech companies to take a collaborative approach to curbing online extremist content.

Its signatories already include 18 countries – among these are Australia, Canada, Germany, France and the UK – as well as tech giants such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon. Absent from the pledge is the US, citing concerns around free speech.

The full text of the ‘Christchurch Call’ can be found here.

A call for what exactly?

The Christchurch Call sets out a number of commitments for government and tech companies. At a high level, these commitments require both governments and tech companies to make systemic changes to tackle terrorist content in all forms, including at its roots. An underpinning principle is that the internet should not be used as a tool by terrorists and violent extremists. The commitments themselves are worded in such a way as to give each government and tech company the discretion as to how they will answer the Christchurch Call.  

For governments, the commitments include:

  • strengthening the resilience and inclusiveness of our societies;
  • encouraging media outlets to act responsibly in how they report on terrorist events; and
  • raising awareness, and building the capacity of smaller online service providers to monitor and remove content.

For tech companies, the call is more specific. It includes commitments to:

  • implement precise measures, particularly in relation to livestreaming, that prevent the upload and dissemination of terrorist material;
  • review the operation of algorithms that may drive users toward and/or amplify terrorist and violent extremist content;
  • provide greater transparency in the setting of community terms of service, and to enforce them; and
  • to share knowledge and ensure cross-industry efforts.

It’s also a call for greater cooperation between big tech and governments to accelerate research into technical solutions, to develop effective interventions, to work with civil society and promote community-led efforts to counter terrorist extremism in all forms, through greater respect and protection for human rights.

Importantly, the Christchurch Call requires that these commitments be executed without compromising human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression. 

The big tech response

Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter have released a joint statement and committed to a nine point-plan in addition to signing the Christchurch Call, which includes promises to update terms of use, create more avenues to flag and report objectionable content, to invest in technology to prevent the uploading and spread of terrorist material, and to create crisis protocols.

The joint statement concludes that “Terrorism and violent extremism are complex societal problems that require an all-of-society response. For our part, the commitments we are making today will further strengthen the partnership that Governments, society and the technology industry must have to address this threat.”

How has Australia answered the call?

Last month we took a close look at Australia’s Criminal Code Amendment (Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material) Act 2019 (Cth) (the Act), passed by the Australian parliament on Thursday 4 April 2019.

In brief, the Act creates new offences under the Criminal Code for the failure of content hosts and service providers to notify law enforcement of, and/or expeditiously remove, ‘abhorrent violent material’. A failure to notify law enforcement may lead to fines of up to $168,000. A failure to remove offending content may lead to fines of up to A$2.1m and/or 3 years imprisonment for individuals or the greater of A$10.5m and 10% of annual turnover for companies.

As far as the Christchurch Call seeks a government response, the Act could only be regarded as one part of the Australian Government’s response to the Christchurch Call. The Christchurch Call, however, should not be seen as absolving the various criticisms that have been made about the Act. 

It is hoped that the Christchurch Call provides the Australian Government with the opening to undertake a consultative process to review how online content ought to be regulated in the context of terrorism and other violent extremist materials.

Authors: Andrew Hii and Alexander Ryan