Checking in on the Christchurch Call

23 September 2019

A blog by Dr Ellen Strickland, Chief Advisor, International

It’s been over six months since the Christchurch mosque attacks, and four months since the Christchurch Call was made. Tomorrow, there will be a meeting alongside the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York to take stock of progress on the Call. World leaders, company executives, United Nations representatives and others will come together to report back on what progress has been made and what plans lie ahead. 

Before this global event, I wanted to share some reflections on where things seem to stand and what I hope to see this week, when I attend some of the meetings here in New York as a member of civil society and the technical community.

New Zealand has put itself in a unique position of leadership on this important challenge: how to get collaborative action to tackle the rise of terrorism and violent extremism online while ensuring an open Internet and respect for human rights. Four months in, the Christchurch Call appears to have served as a catalyst. Many social media companies have taken steps internally and countries have begun to consider this challenge and take regulatory action.

When the Prime Minister first announced the Christchurch Call, InternetNZ stood up to ensure the inclusion of the vital voices of the technical community, civil society and academia in the Call process. We set up an online forum and meetings and encouraged diverse voices to engage in the process. We were in Paris, meeting with the Prime Minister at the ‘Voices for Action’ meeting with other civil society, just prior to the Call being made. 

Over the last few months, since the Call, we have continued to work to support inclusion of diverse voices, of those other than companies and countries, in the Call processes. This is a case where the Internet community approach of ‘multistakeholderism’ is called for; it is with the experience and expertise of the technical community, civil society and academia, working alongside countries and companies, that these issues can best be addressed.

An ‘Advisory Network’ for the Christchurch Call has now been created which is important progress to increase inclusion and diversity in the processes of the Call. This Advisory Network, comprised of technical community, civil society and academic members, will meet for the first time with the Call Supporters in New York. Members will sit around the table at the UNGA side meeting this week, with the opportunity to speak with the leaders and companies about next steps. I will be one of those Advisory Network members at the table, on behalf of InternetNZ, alongside a range of other global organisations who work on human rights, tech advocacy and civil liberties issues.

Out of the Call, there was a related nine point plan from companies, and, broadly speaking, four key work areas: 

Progress on these work areas is expected to be officially announced around the meeting in New York, as well as the likely announcement of new countries and companies signing up to be supporters of the Call.

I understand there has been a lot of work on how the GIFCT might develop as an organisation, to help address the work areas of the Call. There have been meetings among member companies as well as meetings with broader stakeholders, and consultations with advisory network organisations. There have also been meetings on developing a ‘crisis protocol,’ involving a range of stakeholders, which can hopefully make a real difference in crisis events. This is a crucial element of being able to minimise harm from terrorism and violent extremist content online.

The work area of algorithms may be among the hardest to tackle. Understanding the way algorithms can contribute to the spread of terrorist or violent extremist material, both unintentionally and being exploited intentionally to do so, is something that has been a constant topic of conversation. Algorithms are at the heart of the business models for social media companies — so building understanding, and options for changing algorithms if necessary, is needed.

I believe research is the most vital work area right now for the Christchurch Call in order to see actions taken which are evidence-based, research-led, and informed. As well as engaging in the Advisory Network I have been helping run research workshops over the last few days where the researchers from across the technical community, civil society, companies and countries spent some time collaborating on how to best advance research towards these issues. I hope to see commitments from across the range of stakeholders, to work together and put resources into research as a priority action area around the Christchurch Call.

Since the heartbreaking terrorist attacks on Muslim communities in Christchurch, InternetNZ has been reflecting on our role and mission — to make the Internet open, secure and for all New Zealanders. We are looking at our policies, as the manager of .nz, and we have been reflecting on how best to handle situations when the power of the Internet is harnessed for terror and violence. We will continue to engage on these issues in New Zealand, including the upcoming NetHui event in a few weeks.  

More broadly, one of the greatest challenges in leadership is finding the right momentum: to move quickly enough so that motivation and focus remains high and ensuring a pace that everyone can stay with you. With companies, countries and the other organisations all used to working in very different directions and speeds, it’s an achievement to get four months down the track, with everyone coming together around the table with progress to report and keen to continue working together. 

This week’s meeting is a pivotal staging post, where the Christchurch Call will be tested for momentum and direction. I’m looking forward to seeing where things have arrived at.