Christchurch and the Internet: a year on

A blog post by Jordan Carter, Chief Executive, InternetNZ

March 2020

On 15 March 2019, the Internet was weaponised as part of the terrorist attacks on the Muslim communities of Christchurch. The hurt and harm to people in the mosques, their family and friends, and the wider social impact, are where much of the focus will rightly be in this month as the anniversary arrives. 

In the aftermath, we at InternetNZ were involved with some of the Internet aspects. This blog is about those because that’s our field. It is not the most important aspect - that’s the people attacked and how we deal with the intent behind the terrorism - but it is the aspect that we know.

What have we been working on?

It began with our call for a considered approach to any government policymaking arising from the attacks. This has largely come to pass. The government made some immediate tangible changes - for instance, in gun law. Some short term Internet policy changes are coming, with Cabinet making some decisions late last year for changes to the censorship regime and tabling a broader review of media law and online content. We don’t agree with all those changes, but they were not an immediate hasty response to the attacks, and that is good for the Internet.

A second aspect was the need to take wider action than just New Zealand law to affect the platform companies where most of the online material was shared. We are not a big enough country for our laws to drive change by companies as big as Facebook and Google. The Christchurch Call was how this played out, a coalition of countries demanding changes to how harmful content of this sort is dealt with, and how better to manage any future such crisis. That work is ongoing, and progress has been made in some areas (crisis response) though not in others (algorithms). 

A third area was the need to involve civil society voices in these Internet policy debates. We have advocated to Government that they need that wider involvement, and we were privileged to be able to help with that in Paris at the summit agreeing the Christchurch Call. Helping convene the “Voices for Action” event and supporting civil society input into it was hard but worthwhile work. 

We were pleased to have played an influential role in increasing that civil society engagement since then, with civil society representatives from around the world and New Zealand gaining seats at the table in the discussions, including at the UN General Assembly session on the Christchurch Call in New York. There is more to do domestically in making sure there are effective voices in the policy debate this year and beyond, but we’ll be doing what we can to help. 

Another aspect close to home for us was analysing what we could have done with the .nz domain name space if it had been directly used to propagate the content from Christchurch. We have implemented an emergency power framework to allow us to respond if there is a future similar situation. I believe that’s the responsible approach - when a crisis happens we have to be able to act, in the public interest and on the instigation of the appropriate authorities.

Our next steps towards an Internet for good

The work that New Zealand did around the Christchurch Call has had a direct impact in nudging the companies to do better. The process of doing it has raised New Zealand’s profile in global Internet policy debates. As a country we have a responsibility to use that for good. InternetNZ can and will follow in that path - more on that below. 

More broadly, the events have sparked conversations I haven’t heard before. Conversations about the role and responsibility of the Internet platforms. Conversations about how we preserve a “free, open and secure Internet” (the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s words) while making sure it is better suited to the realities of life in the 2020s and beyond.

We’ve responded to that this year by putting the concept of an “Internet for good” at the heart of our effort over the next few years. This will sit alongside our “Internet for all” work to bring about better digital inclusion in New Zealand.

In essence, an Internet for good will be about our country - and our organisation - playing a more active role in shaping the Internet’s future. We can bring a unique experience and cultural inheritance to this work as a country. But we aren’t doing that today. So InternetNZ will be working to improve Kiwi participation in the Internet’s technology and governance systems, to bring that perspective to bear. 

That won’t just be our staff playing a bigger role. We know we don’t know it all, and that there are perspectives in Aotearoa we don’t have access to. Over the next few months we’ll be working on ways to broaden out and encourage new voices to start playing a role in this debate. With the emerging COVID-19 situation this might get off to a slower start than we hoped, so we need to see how that develops over the coming months. 

We will also be organising our thoughts about how to draw together community views about what an “Internet for good” is. How is it different to today’s Internet? Where are the gaps? Where do we - as a country, as an organisation - have leverage to help drive change?

The past ten years have seen a huge and growing impact of the Internet on society. How society deals with those impacts is a big and growing challenge. When we get the balance right, we’ll be able to enjoy better outcomes for all. When we get it wrong, harms will multiply and trust will erode. 

We want to be part of getting it right - and I hope you do too.