Last week, governments and leading tech companies got together to produce a collective response to the horrific ChristChurch terrorist attack. The agreement they came up with, dubbed the “ChristChurch Call”, lays out the steps they will take to better prevent the spread of violent extremist and terrorist content online of the kind that motivated the ChristChurch shooter.
Eighteen governments, including influential American allies such as Germany, India, and Japan, signed onto the non-binding agreement, as well as tech giants Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter. But noticeably missing from the signatories was the United States. Despite reiterating their support for combating online extremism in principle, White House officials stated that they were unable to officially back the proposal because it would conflict with America’s liberal free speech laws.
This decision has resulted in criticism of various sorts. In particular, many have argued that the refusal to commit to the initiative further reveals the indifference of the Trump Administration to violent extremism, and white supremacist terrorism in particular. Some have also noted that it is hypocritical for a President who often undermines freedom of expression to appeal to that value in order to resist a counter-terrorism initiative.
However, it is not only understandable that the administration has chosen to withhold support; it is in many ways necessary that it refrain from endorsing this initiative, if the First Amendment rights of Americans are to be preserved.
By way of preface, it may well be the case that the position of Trump administration owes more to self-interest than a genuine concern for protecting freedom of speech. It is not hugely controversial to observe that many of President Trump’s supporters are less concerned by white supremacist terrorism than with jihadism or terrorism emanating from the radical Left. That said, for the sake of this article, I will assume that their choice was made in good faith.
While it is important for governments and tech companies to work together to combat the spread of violent extremist material online, the ChristChurch Call risks crossing a line into unwarranted censorship. Central to the free speech objection is the poor drafting of the text, which is characterised by vague terminology. Unless a restriction on freedom of expression is tightly forumulated, there is a significant risk that it will be interpreted in a manner that affords an excessive amount of discretion to police content to governments and tech companies. There is a reasonable concern that they would do so in a way which would not merely censor truly extremist content.
In what appears to be an attempt by the document’s authors to preemptively address this objection, the final paragraph of the introduction begins with the following preamble:
“All action on this issue must be consistent with principles of a free, open and secure internet, without compromising human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression.”
That would be reassuring, were it not for the sentence that immediately follows:
“It must also recognise the internet’s ability to act as a force for good, including by promoting innovation and economic development and fostering inclusive societies.”
Several parts of this sentence are concerning. First, what constitutes “a force for good?” Jihadists, for example, believe that “good” is whatever their extremist interpretation of Islam suggests it is. The ChristChurch shooter believed it was whatever would protect Western Civilization from its demise at the hands of “third-world invaders.” These are clearly not the types of “good” that governments and leading tech organizations want to endorse.
Moreover, how do the decision makers decide what messages “promote economic development?” Is economic development synonymous with free market capitalism? Many Chinese economists might disagree. Would that mean Marxists aren’t allowed to advocate their economic opinions online? If this is the case, then at least 18% of college professors would no longer be able to freely express themselves online.
Further, what does “fostering inclusive societies” mean? Are “inclusive societies” only liberal democracies? Are they societies in which the feeling of exclusion trumps the right to freely speak one’s mind? Does this mean that legitimate debate on transgender identity will be censored because a minority of trans people take offense: which already seems to be the case? What about criticising female genital mutilation, or blasphemy laws? Many Muslims would find (and indeed have found) these criticisms “non inclusive” to put it mildly.
These questions are intended to illustrate the reasons that it is impossible for governments and social media sites to adequately protect freedom of speech while also restricting speech that doesn’t fit their own vague conceptions of what constitutes “good” and “inclusive.” As the ChristChurch Call stands today, it is riddled with unspecific restrictions of this type.
But even if the standards laid out in the ChristChurch Call were clear and reasonable, there is little reason to trust tech giants to adhere to their own agreements.
Google, for instance, says that it is “committed to free expression,” but has reportedly tried to set up a search engine in China that would be compliant with the Chinese government’s dystopian censorship apparatus. Twitter states in its hate speech policy that it regulates speech the same way for all users irrespective of their politics. However, there is evidence that conservatives are consistently treated more harshly for hate speech violations than liberals are in similar situations. Facebook’s speech policies, according to a recent op-ed written by its co-founder Chris Hughes, are subject to the opinions of CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In the midst of the genocide against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, he was able to unilaterally stop “sensational messages” from being posted. While most everyone would agree that this action was justified, it is shocking that Zuckerberg was able to make this decision without any intra organizational or governmental oversight.
The spread of violent extremist content online is a serious problem, and it is laudable that our elected leaders are recognizing the need to work together with tech companies to address the issue. However, we cannot risk giving them a disproportionate amount of regulatory power. If we were to do so, our discourse would suffer greatly.