Tech firms agree to beefed up watchdog on 'extremist' content

Technology giants will provide funding for group with aim to collaborate, and respond more quickly to online threats.

    New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (right) and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer and current chair of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), speaking on the sidelines of the UN meeting in New York. [Yana Paskova/Reuters]
    New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (right) and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer and current chair of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), speaking on the sidelines of the UN meeting in New York. [Yana Paskova/Reuters]

    A global working group set up by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft to remove hardline or violent content online will become an independent watchdog working "to respond quicker and work more collaboratively to prevent" attacks like Christchurch, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday.

    Ardern has pushed for stronger action since a self-proclaimed white supremacist shot dead 51 Muslims while they were at prayer in two Christchurch mosques in March.

    "In the same way that we respond to natural emergencies like fires and floods, we need to be prepared and ready to respond to a crisis like the one we experienced," Ardern told reporters on the sidelines of the annual United Nations gathering of world leaders.

    The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism was created in 2017 under pressure from governments in the United States and Europe after a spate of deadly attacks.

    The alliance was supposed to tackle the spread of dangerous material on social media, but the companies came under renewed pressure after the Christchurch mass killings when it emerged that the attacker had not only published a "manifesto" online and live-streamed the murders.

    It will now become an independent organisation led by an executive director, although funded by Facebook, Google's YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft.

    'Christchurch call'

    Speaking at a joint news conference with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, Ardern said the organisation would be governed by an operating board made up of company representatives and would have an independent advisory committee composed of government and civil society members.

    Ardern said some of the group's work would be to fund and coordinate academic research on violent or hardline operations as well as best practices for data sharing.

    Sandberg said the forum had already shared some 200,000 digital fingerprints, "Because when terrorists try to use one platform, they try to use all the platforms; so when one of us finds them, we can take them down across multiple platforms."

    She added that while the fastest-growing messaging platforms were encrypted, Facebook was still able to combat hardline views while aiming to protect users' privacy. She noted that even though WhatsApp is encrypted, Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram are not.

    "We are often able to find people on one and then take then down off the encrypted platforms," Sandberg said.

    President Emmanuel Macron of France, which has faced challenges combating fighters inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) Islamic State movement, has teamed up with Ardern on the so-called "Christchurch Call."

    He co-chaired a meeting with Ardern on the latest efforts as they both attended the United Nations United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

    The forum will still amount to a voluntary effort by the technology giants, which view government regulation as anathema, to police themselves.    

    Ardern indicated she had no intention of seeking new regulations.

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    SOURCE: News agencies