Opinion: 'Christchurch Call' first step in long journey to regulate online extremism

  • Opinion
  • 14/05/2019

By Professor Alexander Gillespie

OPINION: The livestreaming of a terror incident is not new. What was novel about what happened in Christchurch on March 15 was both the speed and international scale with which it occurred.

The tragedy is not only that it happened, but more, unless something changes, it is very likely to happen again.

It is for that reason that there will be two meetings in Paris this week.

These meetings will feed into the processes for the 45th G7 (Group of Seven) meeting which will be held in Biarritz, France at the end of August 2019.

One of the themes for this year's G7 is 'Building Digital Trust Together'.

This theme encompasses the goals of starting to deal with artificial intelligence, the next generation of data technology, and extremism/terrorism/hate online.

All of this has to be done while reconciling fundamental human rights ranging from free speech to privacy.

It is overlapping with the last area that, on May 15, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron will host a meeting which aims to see world leaders and CEOs of tech companies agree to a pledge called the 'Christchurch Call' to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.

As a pledge, it will be voluntary and not a legally binding document for either the corporations and the governments that sign it.

Such entities will sign on and self-police for reasons ranging from their own ethical or political principles through to commercial self-interest.  

The success of the pledge will be judged by what commitments are in it, how these will be monitored, and which entities sign-up.

The success of the pledge cannot be judged on whether it will create a binding international law. It will not. This is not unusual as there are no strong laws in the global sphere which regulate any multinational corporations in any area, let alone social media giants.  

The only international restraints on such enterprises are soft regulation - like the Global Compact.  

Yet, even this noble venture is limited by the small number of entities that even bother to comply with its obligations, and its existing considerations do not even cover issues like social media regulation.

 Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is co-hosting a summit with French President Emmanuel Macron, where the spread of extremism on social media will be discussed.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is co-hosting a summit with French President Emmanuel Macron, where the spread of extremism on social media will be discussed. Photo credit: Newshub

Hopefully, the Christchurch Call will be the first step towards turning this situation around. Ideally, the pledge that emerges in Paris will form something that can be forwarded to the G7 in Biarritz, endorsed by this group, and then taken to the next stage of the formation of international law, in which the rest of the global community can be invited to help build in this area.

Despite these high hopes, the reality is that anything hard and legally powerful at the macro level is years, if not decades, away. The slow nature of international law is, in this particular instance, complicated by two particular problems.

First, there is the evil twin of the normal internet - the Dark Web - which is largely uncontrollable and beyond censorship due to the way it is encrypted.

The fact there are only a few inklings about where those who inhabit this unregulated space reside in physical reality is particularly problematic, and makes enforcing standards on them near impossible.

The Dark Web - the evil twin of the internet - is largely uncontrollable, Prof Gillespie says.
The Dark Web - the evil twin of the internet - is largely uncontrollable, Prof Gillespie says. Photo credit: Getty Images

Although the Dark Web cannot be regulated, in theory, the normal internet - and most obviously commonly recognised social media - should be able to be controlled.

This is because it is public, the owners want to appear as good corporate citizens, and the physical location of those hosting can be identified.

The problem with this thinking is that any attempted treaty-seeking restrictions over the normal internet need to be agreed, and then, universally enforced.

This is a mountain beyond the Christchurch Call about to emerge from Paris, and a further mountain beyond the domestic legal restrictions which are currently evolving quickly in many countries.

In practice, as with all international law, what would happen is that, while some countries would be willing to accept high standards, others would not and would refuse to sign on to any new treaty in this area.

This difficulty will get harder the further any potential agreement moves from the epicentre of why it was created. Thus, while most will agree the video that was filmed in the Christchurch terror attacks should never be allowed on public platforms, the consensus will disappear when more difficult topics like a universal understanding and possible regulation of hate speech appear.  

In the context of a future treaty on social media, the result could be that, in the longer term, some social media platforms end up shopping for countries which have not signed up to any potential international standards or operate lower standards than elsewhere.

We are a very long way from even having to contemplate the difficulties noted above. However, it is not the first time we have been here. The global community learnt how to regulate telegraphs in the 19th century and radio in the 20th.

While the untethered nature of the internet will be a very large challenge in the 21st century, it is not impossible.

If copyright can be seen as a problem requiring global solutions, so too can the streaming of violent material in support of terrorism or extremism.  

The meeting in Paris is the first step on that very long journey.  

Professor Alexander Gillespie is an international law expert at the University of Waikato.

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