New Zealand is having a go at altering the rules of the internet with the Christchurch Call. Will it work?

Jacinda Ardern urged tech leaders to take more responsibility during her speech at the Christchurch Call summit in Paris.

COMMENT: New Zealand is a small country that is exceedingly aware of it.

The horrific attack in Christchurch led to a strange reappraisal of that twinge of excitement we used to get whenever New Zealand was mentioned in overseas media. It's hard to get excited about 51 people being murdered in cold blood in a video anyone with the inclination can still easily find online.

Indeed the incident is so horrifying much of our national discourse has already moved on, just two months from the attack. The speed with which news and opinion is produced and published these days mean the the topic was written about more than perhaps any other event in our history, but over a very small amount of time. Already the headlines have moved back into something like normalcy.

For Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern the issue has not faded so quickly. This weekend she flies home having finally completed the two immediate goals she laid out for the country as a response to the attack: banning the guns used and doing something about the other weapon used: the internet.

* Jacinda Ardern's big day in Paris ends with her getting what she wanted
* Facebook says new rule would have stopped Christchurch shooter livestreaming
* Tech companies, 17 governments sign New Zealand-led pledge - but not the US
* What to expect as Jacinda Ardern finalises her tech pledge in Paris

This is undoubtedly a diplomatic triumph. Whether a set of voluntary commitments really changes the way social media companies run their business is a different story.

Ardern showed very soon after the attack her level of interest in the social media question. Her statement that social media companies could no longer pretend to be the "postman but not the publisher" - just neutral pipes with no real responsibility for what is posted on their platform - goes against the grain of basically all of the current law governing the internet. It is not the kind of thing you say lightly.

But something about the very online nature of the attack had to be said. The alleged gunman did not just happen to livestream the attack. The internet was as much the setting as Christchurch was. The broadcast, the manifesto, the careful post to 8Chan just before it began - the whole thing was designed to go viral, to expose thousands of people to his sick ideology and make Muslims the world over live in fear.

For Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern the horrific attack in Christchurch has not faded so quickly.
For Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern the horrific attack in Christchurch has not faded so quickly.

Around six weeks ago on a call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel the "global" response Ardern was looking for became more obvious: The G7 - an exclusive group of countries New Zealand is extremely not a part of - were already planning a meeting of digital ministers in France. Why not add in a meeting on the response to Christchurch?

And so the "Christchurch Call" was born. New Zealand was going to make a stand, with our experience as a springboard. There was absolutely no way such an event could be organised in New Zealand at such short notice, so latching onto the G7 event made sense. French President Emmanuel Macron, undoubtedly keen to get some of the Ardern stardust into his palace, agreed to co-host.

The summit, principally held over two days in Paris in the last week, followed weeks of frenetic activity by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who have a lean team set up to deal with the matter. The last time New Zealand organised anything of this kind of size was APEC in the 1990s - and that did not come together in just six weeks or relate to any dicey issues like freedom of speech and the running of some of the most valuable companies in the world.

On Sunday the list of countries and leaders attending the summit was released, dampening expectations somewhat. The US wouldn't be there, and neither would Mark Zuckerberg, although Facebook was going and there was still some hope the US would sign up in absentia. Ardern published an opinion-piece in the New York Times setting out exactly what she wanted out of the summit, focusing very specifically on the livestream, as almost no one would argue such a stream should have been allowed.

French President Emmanuel Macron was undoubtedly keen to get some of the Ardern stardust into his palace.
French President Emmanuel Macron was undoubtedly keen to get some of the Ardern stardust into his palace.


Whether or not the pledge was focused specifically on stopping that livestream or on something much wider would soon become one of the most interesting questions of the week.

Whilst Ardern was in the air on her way to Paris on Monday her old boss Helen Clark released a report with some more concrete domestic regulatory proposals to consider, and set the scene by noting that tech companies actually made very good money off hateful content, which was often very highly engaged with.

Clark's report was not just focused on the livestream, but also on the wider spectrum of content that could radicalise or "red-pill" people. In other words, not just the livestream, but the algorithims that decide what exactly everyone sees on their social media feeds. This includes rabbit-holes of YouTube's recommendation engine, which can lead you from a video about video games to one about how feminists and Muslims are ruining the world so gradually you barely notice, and the Facebook news feed gradually gets further and further to one side of the political spectrum when you respond more and more positively to messages from there.

Despite repeatedly telling journalists the call was to be as narrowly focused on "extremist content" as possible in order to gain support, Ardern was clearly interested in this wider issue of online radicalisation. Whilst staying away from ever mentioning the entwined issue of "misinformation" or "fake news" - Ardern is aware that governments deciding what is true and what is not makes people very uncomfortable - she suggested radicalisation online did deserve to be looked at, perhaps as a result of transparency measures in the call. (Currently these algorithms are trade secrets, so we only really know what we can test ourselves.)

"We've got to be able to have that conversation around whether commercial imperatives are driving certain behaviours that are ultimately harmful," Ardern said.

Jacinda Ardern met with UK Prime Minster Theresa May in Paris.
Jacinda Ardern met with UK Prime Minster Theresa May in Paris.

The complexity of these issues were belied the next day when Ardern hosted a meeting at the OECD palace with leaders from civil society, several of whom had serious concerns about the goals of the call and the free speech implications. Indeed, the core goal of blocking the livestream at its source was even challenged by some of the attendees, who said such blocking could halt useful counterterrorism efforts that take place. 

Ardern emerged to a team of journalists extremely keen to talk about algorithms again - the livestream story ran for quite a few days, and there's only so many times you can write about which countries are and aren't coming. Ardern managed expectations back down somewhat, reminding reporters that the focus of the call was on extremist content itself, not content that might make one extreme.

When the pledge text was finally released the next day radicalisation did get a mention, but mostly along the terms Ardern had set for it. The call pledged companies to be more transparent about how these algorithms work, and consider injecting counter-narratives into algorithmic dark holes where appropriate. Most of the companies have promised to do something similar in the past.

While the livestreaming goal is more narrow, it is still deeply ambitious. The working assumption for almost all content online is Upload First, Possibly Moderate Later. Flipping that on its head for a product as important as livestreaming would result in an entirely different internet.

Facebook said a new rule change would have stopped the Christchurch shooter from livestreaming the massacre on its platform.
Facebook said a new rule change would have stopped the Christchurch shooter from livestreaming the massacre on its platform.


The main day in Paris was Wednesday May 15, exactly two months since the attack.

Ardern met separately with Jordan's King, Norway's Prime Minister, Twitter chief Jack Dorsey, UK Prime Minster Theresa May, and a had an hour-long lunch with Macron.

She also hosted the main two Christchurch Call meetings - a roundtable with tech leaders in the morning and a long sitdown with the world leaders and tech leaders in the afternoon, at the Elysees Palace, before giving a speech at the Tech for Good dinner that night, getting home at around 11pm.

The afternoon sitdown had all the pomp and circumstance you can expect from the French, with a troop of bayonet-armed soldiers greeting the leaders as they arrived and a full riser set up for the 250 journalists who had requested accreditation. In the gilded but rather small room where the meeting actually happened Ardern sat at the centre of the table flanked by Senegal's Prime Minister Mahammed Dionne and Macron, directly across the from the tech companies. 

The list of countries joining the call grew throughout the day, but hopes for the US joining late in the piece had expired. Just before the embargo lifted the White House finally put out a statement endorsing the "overall goals" of the call but staying away from it at that point out of free speech concerns.

Macron then spent a decent portion of the half-hour press conference pointing out that Canada had signed on so other "North American" countries had nothing to worry about. This was either a concerted effort at trolling Trump - something Macron has done before - or a deep misreading of how exactly the American psyche works.

All of this happened while New Zealand slept. By the time the country woke up, Facebook had managed to steal Ardern's thunder somewhat, after global policy head Nick Clegg casually noted on his way out the meeting that new changes they had made the day before the summit would have stopped the killer from being able to livestream.

The thunder-stealing illuminated the massive power imbalance surrounding the issue. Social networks chop and change their policies all the time, and can just decide not to bother enforcing them sometimes - a certain Twitter user who leads a large country has broken that network's terms of service several times. Meanwhile the gathered governments, without the big stick of regulation, can really only make suggestions to the tech companies in this call, and then hope to PR-shame them into following them.

Which isn't to say this deal is meaningless or toothless. The pressure on Facebook from PR-shaming will be what led to them making those changes in the first place. The backing of NZ$5t worth of super funds and other investors to the call provided a useful financial backstop to the call, although it isn't quite clear how much these pension funds are invested in the volatile tech world.

The winds are changing on tech regulation. Facebook's leaders are openly asking for regulation, perhaps recognising that the company is now big enough to deal with almost any red-tape thrown its way.

But the real problem with Facebook isn't a lack of regulation. The real problem with Facebook is that no amount of machine learning or regulation will change the fact that one organisation decides what over two billion people in the world see every day, and that organisation has no real obligation to do anything but make money for its shareholders.

Clegg, who was the United Kingdom's deputy PM before becoming Facebook's top lobbyist, was quite candid about the problem of this power on Wednesday.

"I think everybody at Facebook accepts – I know Mark Zuckerberg does – that if you were to write the rules of the internet today you wouldn't put so much authority in the hands of private companies like Facebook, on decisions that have profound ethical and social and moral implications," Clegg said.

New Zealand is doing its best to make a serious change to those rules of the internet. But while a single organisation holds that much power it will be extremely difficult to make anything stick. If we had been a real threat to his actual power, Zuckerberg would have shown up.