24 September 2019

Today, the New Zealand government announced an update on the Christchurch Call to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. The Christchurch Call emerged in the aftermath of the horrific live-streaming of the March 15 attack against a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The perpetrator livestreamed the murder of 51 people, and it went viral.

The update today included restructuring the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), “to make it an independent body that will drive much of the tech sector’s work on implementing the Call,” a new crisis response protocol for incidents like the Christchurch attack and the establishment of an Advisory network.

WITNESS has joined the Advisory Network, along with many allies that we’ve worked with over the years. We were involved in early stages of the Christchurch Call. We provided feedback prior to the May 15 Christchurch Call Summit in Paris and co-wrote a whitepaper with Syrian Archive and the Electronic Frontier Foundation called “Caught in the Net: The Impact of ‘Extremist’ Speech Regulations on Human Rights Content”. We’re on the Board to ensure that not only human rights broadly, but specifically the voices of those most affected by violent extremist content and attempts to remove such content are not overlooked.

So far, the Christchurch Call has moved very quickly, and it hasn’t significantly included civil society. It’s important to note that the New Zealand government has made good-faith efforts to include civil society, which we’re grateful for. That being said, the Call was also signed by governments that are, themselves, encouraging or allowing violent and extremist content online. It was also signed by governments that have called political opposition or human rights defenders terrorists. This is incredibly dangerous and threatens to undermine any commitment to human rights included in the Call. 

Yesterday, as part of the Advisory Board, WITNESS Program Manager for tech + advocacy, Dia Kayyali, spoke during the United Nation’s Leaders dialogue as one of three speakers. The other speakers were Deborah Brown from the Association for Progressive Communications and Anjum Rahman of the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand. We’re publishing our comments below.  

Many thanks to the New Zealand government for bringing civil society into the Christchurch call. I do want to mention that the pace of this work requires financial and time commitments that privilege participation from the Anglophone and European professional NGO world, rather than communities most affected by violent extremist content and its removal.

The Internet has made the spread of online content that reflects offline hate easier than ever- and from the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya to white supremacist violence to Hindu extremism, that online speech is having offline effects on human rights, including the right to life, free expression, safety, and dignity. All of these rights are important, and they are not mutually exclusive. The Christchurch call has to commit to the task of balancing these rights, not sacrificing one for the other.

The Christchurch call is not the first effort to scrub violent extremist content from the Internet. I can say from personal experience that platforms themselves have been undertaking that effort for several years with mixed results. It was only in the last year that major platforms kicked off notorious white supremacist figures and groups, while they have been focusing a huge amount of resources on content that comes from the Arab and Muslim world for years- begging the question of who is deciding what constitutes extremist content.  Platforms are using “black box” artificial intelligence algorithms, and these algorithms have led to deletion of massive amounts of human rights content- ironically, content that could be used to push back on extremism at the societal roots if platforms were working with human rights defenders to preserve it. For example, Facebook videos formed the basis for the ICC’s warrant for a suspected Libyan war criminal, and YouTube videos that showed a 2014 barrel bombing in Syria were used later by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons as evidence. Videos like this have been removed in the tens of thousands by platforms, leaving many Syrians to wonder if our history and chances at justice will be completely removed from the Internet.

I am encouraged to see that white supremacism is being taken seriously today. And I’m encouraged to have a few Muslim and Arab colleagues working on the Christchurch call. But by and large, I am concerned that this work is focusing on an urgent need to just do something with the false promise of exciting technological solutions that will affect the whole world, while ignoring what we all know to be true- without fighting the injustice and conditions that have led to such a global acceleration of extremism, any solution is a bandaid on a broken arm. I hope we can push the movement of the call towards holistic and thoughtful solutions that integrate input from all of civil society, especially affected communities and the technical community.

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