Lessons from the Christchurch Call one year on: together is the only way forward

Written by Jordan Carter, Chief Executive and Dr. Ellen Strickland, Chief Advisor-International.
15 May 2020

It’s been a year since the Christchurch Call was made. In May last year, at a summit in Paris co-hosted by French President Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern, New Zealand put itself in a unique position of leadership on this important challenge: how to tackle the rise of terrorism and violent extremism online while ensuring a free and open Internet and respect for human rights. 

At this one-year anniversary, (as well as reflecting with astonishment already at a pre-COVID19 world where so many from all over the world flew to Paris for a one day summit and announcement!) we are reflecting on this historic approach to this vital challenge and asking ourselves: Has The Call been a success?

We do think the innovative, collaborative approachoutside any existing processeshas brought us to a place where the response to an event using the Internet for terror and harm, if it happens again, should be better and more coordinated than it was back in March 2019. There are shared crisis event protocols, the refounding of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) continues with input from a wide range of stakeholders, and research coordination and activities have been revitalised. There were many commitments mademany have been advanced, some achieved and some notwhich we could list and reflect on. 

However, to us, it isn’t The Call itself, the wordy phrases of negotiated text and specific commitments, that have made the real impact. We are in a somewhat improved position now because of the ongoing work to address and mitigate harm from terrorism and violent extremism online. The Christchurch Call broke down walls between companies, governments, civil society and the technical community. People who are working on these issues around the world know more, understand other perspectives more deeply, and have developed some new relationships and processes as a result.

For us, the best milestones and advances on this important work were where these connections, relationships and collaborative processes were grown and fostered. InternetNZ was closely involved in the creation of a group which has advocated this collaborative approach, the Advisory Network for the Christchurch Call, which brings civil society (community organisations, academics, and technical organisation) into the Call work, which has country and company signatories. The collaborative working groups being set up in the GIFCT are hoped to become a place where all these groups continue to work together. We also hope that as the GIFCT is refounded, it takes this collaborative approach into its governance as well as its operations.

The New Zealand government also has work underway domestically related to harms online, including proposed changes to the Films Videos and Publications Classification Act and an upcoming review of media regulationwhich is important work related to The Call, as well. We, as a country, should follow the example we pioneered globally, by working with all stakeholders to understand the issues and find the best way forward to manage these potential harms, while respecting human rights and protecting a free and open Internet.

When asked, in the months after the Christchurch Call, what the main thing we learned from this was, the answer was: with the Internet and society we must ‘expect the unexpected’ and that figuring out how to respond to the new unexpected events will always be best done together. Tackling the challenges of unexpected events, occurring on and with the Internet, is always best through collaboration between the different realms of society: business, government, technical experts, academics, and the community. This work is not one-off work, it must be an ongoing commitment to collaboration, as both the Internet and society change.

This anniversary comes in the context of a huge unexpected global event, the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the processes of content moderation that have been core to the technical responses around terrorism and violent extremism online, have been notably disrupted by the pandemic. For example, pushing more moderation to AI, which is highly debated, and reiterating the open questions of transparency around and value of retaining removed materials, be it violent content or pandemic misinformation. In ways, these issues are of increased importance while people are spending more time than ever in online environments due to COVID-19. 

But the way forward from here for The Christchurch Callin a world with vastly different circumstances and priorities than a year agowill be challenging. From the work we’ve seen over the last year, the issues of terrorism and violent extremism online and the need to continue to improve responses to it remain. The collaboration that has been instigated by the Call should be valued and protected, in itself and as a contribution to addressing difficult issues online more broadly. 

The best work of The Christchurch Call has been in bringing diverse people and organisations together, to work on these vital issues of society and our online environment. That work of the Christchurch Call remains important work to continue, together.