This blog post is written at the end of a rather hectic, but important, week here in Paris for the Christchurch Call. This week is itself the end of many weeks of intense work to bring the Christchurch Call together, a successful and unprecedented effort to bring some agreement by governments and tech companies on how to tackle the issue of terrorist and violent extremist content online.
I’ve written this to share a bit more about my perspective mainly on the process of what happened - InternetNZ's views on the substance of the Call will come later. The audience I had in mind is those who attended in Paris, or those interested in InternetNZ’s role, from whatever walk of life.
Work on the Call followed four phases: constructing the Call, the Voices of Action civil society meeting, the Tech Round Table, and the Summit at which it was launched. With those behind us and the Call issued, we must now consider what comes next. This post looks at all of these.
If you attended the Voices for Action, there is a request below to share further thoughts with us or the NZ Government - I’d welcome anything you can share.
Construction of the Call
In early April, as work on the Christchurch Call began, the Prime Minister’s team reached out to me to join an informal advisory group. InternetNZ was invited into this process due to our long-standing relationship working with and advising New Zealand Governments of all stripes, because of our linkages to parts of the Internet civil society community, and because of our experience of Internet governance processes.
When this group met, we discussed how attempts to regulate the Internet can go wrong (from the incidental bycatch of good speech, to chilling effects, to empowering despotic regimes), and took heart from the intent to frame this call narrowly around violent extremist content. It quickly became clear that the Prime Minister wanted wider civil society involved in whatever the Christchurch Call led to, for their expertise and their ability to hold all parties to account.
As we know from experience, governments and companies tend to have a two-party model of regulation construction (“the regulator”, “the private sector”), whereas including civil society can often lead to policy work that is more inclusive, is more successful, and has greater legitimacy. Furthermore, the relationship between tech platforms and governments has been characterised by distrust rather than engagement. To bring the Christchurch Call together took a lot of diplomatic work by New Zealand to bridge this distrust, and I’m deeply impressed they could do it in just six weeks.
Ideally, civil society would have been strongly engaged in the construction of the text itself. The circumstances didn’t permit that, which frustrated us even while we could see why it was so. To help cover the gap, I gave feedback on drafts, InternetNZ created a Discourse forum for civil society to meet and discuss, and we shared the essence of concerns raised to those doing the drafting. The PM acknowledged that the necessarily accelerated development of the Call didn’t realise the full potential of civil society’s engagement. InternetNZ is already working with the New Zealand Government to help make sure that civil society’s role in what comes next is expanded.
Voices for Action: impact, summary, infosharing
Voices for Action had around forty participants from research, civil liberties, civil rights, and anti-terrorism organisations. We were pleased that the Voices for Action meeting was held and I was honoured to have been asked to facilitate it. The perspectives and input shared was thoughtful, insightful, and sometimes challenging. The Prime Minister rearranged her schedule and came earlier and stayed longer than she had originally planned, and her engagement with the group was directly influential in how she approached her subsequent meetings, including during the Christchurch Call summit with heads of state.
Thank you to everyone who was able to make it at such short notice.
I wrote a brief facilitator’s summary of key points from the Voices for Action meeting which you can find as a Google doc:
I also appreciated and want to link to the civil society document that was shared in part by Farzaneh Badii and Ellen Strickland at the Voices meeting - it’s a Google doc here:
We will post a copy of my facilitator summary in the Discourse used for coordination to date. Here is the post-event analysis that caught my eye by Jillian Yorke from the EFF and by Farzaneh Badii from IGP:
- The Good, the Not-So-Good, and the Ugly (by Jillian Yorke)
- Our Statement on the Christchurch Process (by Farzaneh Badii)
The NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), who coordinated the event, are eager to receive other papers or documents that participants want tabled.
If you attended the Summit, just send that material back to the same address that was used to send you your invitation. Or send me or Ellen an email to get it. MFAT have offered to share any papers sent in to all the attendees.
Tech Round Table
In the morning of 15 May, the Prime Minister hosted, with the King of Jordan, a round-table discussion with some of the organisations attending the Call summit that afternoon. Following the discussion the previous day at the Voices for Action event, I was able to be in the room and to observe the meeting. The Prime Minister and the King used the event to pose the three questions that the Prime Minister had outlined at the summit — essentially:
- Could the Global Internet Forum for Countering Terrorist (GIFCT) be developed and evolved to expand its role, broaden and formalise its governance, and potentially be the home of a crisis response function across the companies?
- How could a broad-ranging research agenda into the topics of the Call be sustained and encouraged, supporting existing efforts and new ones where needed?
- How could the issues of algorithms as set out in the Christchurch Call be dealt with in a practical way, to allow for external scrutiny over their outputs and impact without necessarily asking companies to reveal proprietary information?
The dialogue was constructive, and the sense I had of the room is that the companies were interested in progressing all three issues. This was confirmed by their signing up to the Call formally later in the day.
There was acknowledgment that GIFCT could evolve, and nobody was defensive of its current mission and governance although the need to protect its current operational capability was noted.
For research, there was a shared view on its importance and the desire to focus on practical solutions to the issues around the Call.
In terms of algorithms, a point well made was that to understand them better, we need to understand what categories of algorithms (search ranking, newsfeed generation, recommendations, etc.) and the issues with them, as different transparency and regulatory solutions might apply to each.
The Prime Minister was clear in the discussion that on all three topics, civil society had perspectives that needed to be brought to the table. She repeated some of the concerns she’d heard at Voices for Action.
Christchurch Call summit
On 15 May at the Summit itself, the New Zealand and French governments decided to include two observers from civil society around the table. This was to observe the dialogue, not to participate. New Zealand chose me for their spot, as the facilitator of Voices for Action. France chose Salwa Toko, from the French Digital Council and also a participant at Voices.
The summit included heads of government from New Zealand, France, Jordan, Senegal, Norway, Canada, the UK, and the Vice President of Indonesia. Tech companies or organisations present were Twitter, Wikipedia, Microsoft, Google, Dailymotion, Facebook, Qwant and Amazon. European Commission President Junker was there, as was the French President of the G7.
The participants spoke without media present, aside from the opening statements by Macron and Ardern. There was honesty and emotion, not to mention a clear sense of hope that this process could lead to fewer problems. I was also struck by the fact that the statements made by leaders - be they national or company leaders - were not all scripted. There was listening and engagement in the room, which I have heard is not always the case at summits like this.
While it was a privilege to be in the room, it was an uncomfortable one, because of being unable to convey any of the issues raised at the Voices event directly. As with the Tech Round Table, the Prime Minister did channel some of those issues herself, and so the input was partly in the room.
What comes next?
One thing clear from the discussions is that the Prime Minister is keen to see ongoing action. There is talk of follow up discussion over the next few weeks, a check in discussion in June, and a fuller follow up at some point in September (possibly alongside the UN General Assembly session towards the end of the month). This is an ambitious pace.
From the various discussions, I think the first worksteams are likely to be around some or all of GIFCT, algorithmic transparency, and research.
In a process sense, InternetNZ will look to continue to help with convening civil society voices, and working with the New Zealand Government to help enhance civil society participation and perspectives in what comes next. The Government will be mindful of the need to move at pace, and the orientation towards action on the Prime Minister's part is quite clear.
This means, any advice or suggestions from civil society about how to best structure meaningful involvement would be very gratefully received — by me, certainly, and I am sure by the Government as well.
You could pass on ideas on this front to me and/or to Ellen Strickland, and we can forward them to the Government. Or you are welcome to pass them on to the New Zealand Government direct. Either way works, though we at InternetNZ would be grateful to see as much of others’ thinking on process that we can.
For our part, some commitments we can make are these:
- to do our bit to keep you informed about our work in this area, mainly through this blog and through the work of Ellen Strickland
- continuing to assist with civil society coordination and engagement, again with Ellen in the lead.
We will also be continuing to develop our own analysis of the commitments in the Call, and on the implications for domestic policy in New Zealand over the coming months.
Let me close with a few other points.
As a matter of transparency, because the Government invited me to facilitate the meeting, they met half the costs of my travel to Paris, and accommodation costs at the event. InternetNZ paid the other costs and all costs involved with Ellen Strickland’s participation.
InternetNZ maintains its commitment to an Internet that is open, secure and for all New Zealanders and all people around the world. The commitments in the Christchurch Call are not incompatible with that, but the way they are implemented could challenge elements of that vision. We will work to make sure that perspective is heard in the actions and changes inspired by the Call, be they by the New Zealand Government, other governments, or the companies themselves.
Finally, thank you for taking the time to read this rather long post - I hope this update is of use, and I welcome any feedback on it or any questions about any of the things covered.
Jordan Carter - Chief Executive, InternetNZ.