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What New Zealand commentators are missing about the Christchurch Call

Tom Barraclough, Director at the Brainbox Institute –

In New Zealand, the time has come for a discussion about our ongoing support for the Christchurch Call. There’s some indication that a cost benefit analysis of sorts is taking place, but public perception of the Call is also likely to play a role in any future decisions.

So far, the commentary I have seen in New Zealand is fundamentally misguided, and so I’m offering here an alternative set of considerations that also ought to be considered from three perspectives: the people affected by the attacks; free speech advocates; and – more cynically – our national interest.

Firstly, violent extremism is still a significant issue that is only growing in its potentially devastating impacts. It is essential in any discussion to note that the people caught up in the Christchurch attacks have only just completed a harrowing coronial inquiry. The ongoing impact of the Christchurch attacks is incredibly real, even if it is beginning to fade for some.

More than that, the machinery created by the Christchurch Call has actually been activated on a number of occasions globally since 2019 in response to its extremely narrow mandate – real world terrorist attacks that include an online propaganda component intended to amplify the impact of that violence. All indications suggest that we are likely to see more violent extremism in the coming years, rather than less. If you haven’t seen the impact of the Call in your feeds, that is because it has been remarkably effective.

Secondly, people who value freedom of expression highly may have reasonable reservations about the Call. In particular, there’s a need to ensure the Call doesn’t unwittingly expand its scope – away from black and white abhorrent violent content, and toward more grey content like disinformation or hate speech.

The need to manage these risks is a foundational principle of the Call, and they are issues that should be – and are – repeatedly analysed in a transparent manner. Building trust in the Call is a necessary part of its legitimacy. But I think critics concerned about free speech are missing two key points.

To start with, the scope of the Call is intentionally narrow. It has an external advisory group who are constantly concerned about the risk of scope creep, and whose members include some organisations founded to manage the risks presented by government censorship. In addition, the Call is a voluntary partnership between governments and companies, many of whom are US-based and take a strident approach to free expression. These companies often operate in the most repressive countries in the world, navigating take down requests and requests for information about users from governments in countries such as Vietnam, Turkey, or Thailand. When it comes to government overreach, they know exactly how bad it can get. What’s more, the heat that content moderation draws for those companies is an ongoing headache, drawing ire from users, politicians and journalists. The last thing they want is to undermine trust, or attract controversy, through an ever-creeping scope.

Paradoxically for free speech advocates, the Christchurch attacks were identified by some at the 2023 Internet Governance Forum as an event that could have prompted the most repressive crack down on technology companies we’ve ever seen. Motivated governments could have ridden a wave of public sentiment of the kind seen in Australia’s Abhorrent Violent Material legislation, or the United Kingdom’s response to child safety cases in the recent Online Safety Act. By contrast, the Call is an example of non-coercive, transparent, and careful action that was by no means guaranteed when it was developed. Advocates for free expression ought to proceed very carefully in calling for the Call’s infrastructure to be disbanded.

It’s even more perplexing to hear the Call criticised on the basis that it hasn’t been effective at somehow reducing extremism or polarisation. Any work on assessing the impact of algorithms on radicalisation was always the hardest part of the Call’s mission, and the bit that should be approached with the most caution. We simply don’t know how impactful algorithms are on shaping political behaviour, and the first step needs to be assessing what that impact is, before we start intervening at a political level. It’s absurd to hear advocates for freedom of expression saying the Call has failed because people are still polarised, which assumes that people’s behaviour is driven more by algorithms than their real world values and experiences.

If neither of these areas of principle or morality move you, the final perspective that I think we’re missing is more cynical – and that’s the benefit of the Call for our own national geopolitical interests. The world is entering difficult and unstable times in a transition towards a multipolar environment – and one of the core locations of interest is our own place in the Asia-Pacific. This is happening in a century where technology, the way it’s used, and the values that determine how it is governed are potentially the most impactful issues on the global stage short of climate change and direct armed conflict.

Even aside from the moral obligation to respond to TVEC in careful and transparent ways, the Call has been New Zealand’s entry point to global conversations we simply would not have been invited to, let alone led, in the years since 2019. To scupper it now would be an act of extraordinary self sabotage in an area of immense soft power. Any government with an interest in the geopolitics of technology and the importance of free speech should weigh this heavily in any cost benefit analysis.

Enhanced transparency, an emphasis on real world impact, and ongoing vigilance against unjustified scope creep remain essential, but in addressing those issues, it would be foolish to relinquish our globally influential role.

Disclosure: the Christchurch Call has provided funding toward the Transparency Initiatives Portal for the Action Coalition on Meaningful Transparency, a multi-stakeholder coalition where the Brainbox Institute acts as project lead.

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