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On How The Christchurch Call Serves Big Tech

At this point in 2022, the Christchurch Call looks like a somewhat forlorn effort to keep alive some of the political good will that PM Jacinda Ardern earned from her response to the mosque shootings. Reportedly, the next Christchurch Call project will be a joint research effort with Twitter and Microsoft to identify the algorithmic triggers for online radicalisation, in order to better understand how some recruits eventually feel motivated to commit violence in line with their new beliefs.

No doubt, this research effort is well-intentioned. Yet it isn’t surprising that Twitter and Microsoft, Google and Facebook might be interested in the commercial spinoffs. Surely, the more that social media companies understand how people get algorithmically enticed deeper and deeper into the “bad” content online, the more these insights can also be used to send online users down the rabbit holes of ad-carrying content. The fact the Christchurch Call is channeling this latest initiative through the non-profit research firm OpenMined doesn’t ease the misgivings about the commercial applications of this work.

Also and more importantly, Google is facing a major Supreme Court case over the alleged role played by its search algorithms in the radicalisation of the terrorists who killed a 23 year old American woman called Nohemi Gonzalez, along with 128 other people during an Islamic State raid on a Paris nightclub in November 2015. Whatever OpenMinded turns up could be useful to the defence in this Gonzalez v Google case. As Vox News says:

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At stake are fundamental questions about how the internet works, and what kind of content we will all see online. Currently, algorithms and similar behind-the-scenes automation determine everything from what content we see on social media to which websites we find on search engines to which ads are displayed when we surf the web. In the worst-case scenario for the tech giants, a loss in Gonzalez could impose an intolerable amount of legal risk on companies like Google or Facebook that rely on algorithms to sort through content.

Freedom, Under Fire

Since its inception, the Christchurch Call has aimed to convince social media platforms to be pro-actively engaged with how they manage user access to their harmful content. Fine. But as the Gonzalez case (and other legal battles) indicate, that noble aim looks like something of a rearguard action. Currently in the US, the fundamental right – let alone the ability, let alone the willingness - of social media platforms to manage the content they carry is under legal attack, from both the alleged victims of the algorithms to those with a political beef with the tech giants.

Basically, the Republican Party and its supporters want to put an end to the ability of social media platforms to deny access to extreme right wing content and dis-information, and to force them to carry more of that content in the name of “balance.” To do less, their legal argument goes, is to frustrate and deny the free speech of the people holding such views.

You’d think that any American lobby group would face an uphill battle to win that argument, given the sanctity of competing free speech rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution. For the challenge to be successful, the free speech rights of the social media companies carrying the content would have to be trampled underfoot. Also keep in mind that in its landmark Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court had opened the door to massive (and election -distorting) campaign funding, by declaring that corporations are persons, with all the same rights to free expression (and to obligation-free investment) as individuals.

Therefore, dictating what content the social media companies have to carry – especially content of a political nature - would surely be anathema to the social media companies’ own First Amendment rights. Up until this year, the US courts had agreed. Their decisions will probably provide the foundation of Google’s defence against the Gonzalez litigants.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal, for example, has ruled in support of the right of social media companies to moderate the content they carry, along with when they can practically do so, and how they do so. However, in the process of upholding a Texas state law, a very conservative court ruling by a judge in the Fifth Circuit has reached the opposite conclusion. Reportedly, the issue is now headed for the Supreme Court for a definitive ruling, on issues which will be central to the Gonzalez case.

If you want to read a fiercely argued clause-by-clause demolition of the Fifth Circuit’s Texas reasoning, this essay by Mike Masnick’on his influential Techdirt site is worth the time and effort. The Columbia School of Journalism has also published a useful overview of the issues at stake, and the implications for Internet freedom. In the context of these seismic reverberations, the Christchurch Call looks rather like a bit player.

You’d have to hope that when the time comes, the US Supreme Court would be consistent, and would uphold the rights of the social media companies to moderate the content they carry, as best as they practically can. Yet given the current mood and make-up of the Supreme Court, a win in the Gonzalez case could still prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for the social media companies, in that the conservative majority will probably use this opportunity to rewrite the legal status of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act For the past quarter century, the 26 words that comprise Section 230 have been the legal basis for the free Internet that we have known thus far.

In brief, Section 230 absolves social media platforms of legal responsibility for the content they carry. Among other things, Section 230 is a practical recognition that it is impossible to pre-emptively moderate the millions of uploads that occur every day. More importantly though, the Section 230 freedom from litigation was originally intended by Congress to motivate the social media companies to operate a robust “protest and take down” process with respect to damaging, libellous and copyright infringing content. While imperfect, that system has worked better than any of the suggested alternatives.

That conclusion is not universally shared. For entirely different reasons, the Republican right and the Democratic liberal left (e.g. Nancy Pelosi and Amy Klobuchar) are united in their hostility to section 230. For motives similar to those behind the Christchurch Call, many American liberals want the social media companies to be stripped of section 230 protections so they can be held legally liable for lax policing of harmful social content.

For their part, the right wing critics of Facebook and Youtube and Google want to see the section 230 protections abolished, so that social media companies can be sued for not carrying more of the right wing disinformation being promoted by Fox News and the Trump -dominated Republican Party. To repeat: the “cures” being touted for the alleged defects in Section 230 would almost certainly make things worse. They could quite conceivably cripple the Internet, and enable its content to be dictated by the ability to afford the costs of possible litigation. Peter Thiel has already given us a chilling preview of how that might work out.

Given the challenges facing the social media platforms, the Christchurch Call must seem like a welcome diversion, and a chance for the social media giants to project a commitment to being good public citizens. Also and more importantly, anything that the Open Mind research throws up about the beneficial uses of the algorithms – or about the residual role of user choices within the decision matrix, regardless of the prompting by the algorithms - will be helpful to the defence strategies of the tech giants.

Given the forces now in play, the Christchurch Call is only a small cork on a vast digital ocean.

Footnote One: There are other signs the world may be going backwards on the issues central to the Christchurch Call. Reportedly, Italy’s new leader Giorgia Meloni believes in the immigrant-hating, anti-Islamic “Great Replacement” theory that was central to the fascist manifesto written by the Christchurch shooter. All too typical. In a number of Western countries, the extreme right are no longer outsiders. Increasingly, populist neo-fascist extremists are pushing aside the traditional centre right parties, and taking over the mainstream.

In the US, the Trump takeover of the Republican Party is an obvious example. In France, the extreme right bloc in Parliament sharply increased its presence this year. In Spain, the proto-fascist Vox party is said to be gaining ground. In Sweden, the extreme right Sweden Democrats are now a major faction within the new government. Poland and Hungary are already being ruled by right wing autocrats much admired by US Republicans. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

Helping Ukraine Rebuild

However the war in Ukraine is finally resolved, the damage done to the country’s infrastructure by Russia’s invasion will take decades to repair. Already, other countries are making plans to adopt some of Ukraine’s shattered regions, and to work together (with Kiev) in reconstruction efforts, once the fighting has subsided. As the Australian website Crikey reports:

The proposal was first discussed by foreign and Ukrainian ambassadors at a meeting in July in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and put forward to the Australian government shortly afterwards by Ukrainian ambassador to Australia Vasyl Myroshnychenko.

By late last month, the proposal for partnership rebuilds had gained traction:

….Ten nations have pledged to partner with regions. Turkey will take on Kharkiv, The Netherlands will help rebuild Kherson, and Italy will tackle three regions: it’s pledged to take on Odesa and will partner with the UK to rebuild Kyiv and Estonia to rebuild Zhytomyr. Chernihiv will be rebuilt by Latvia, France and Sweden.

Myroshnychenko [has] suggested that Australia team up with Denmark to adopt the Mykolaiv region in the south, which has undergone near-constant shelling by Russian forces, although it remains controlled by Ukraine. Australia could also team up with The Netherlands to help rebuild neighbouring Kherson, which is occupied by Russia. Both Mykolaiv and Kherson border the Black Sea.

As yet, there is no word on whether and how New Zealand might take part in this adoption-for-reconstruction plan.

Footnote: The one upside to Russia’s annexation of the regions belonging to Ukraine is that it probably minimises the likelihood of the Kremlin using a tactical nuclear weapon to repel the Ukrainian counter offensive. Such a weapon could easily be delivered – via an artillery shell or rocket – from Russia’s estimated stockpile of 2,000 small tactical nuclear devices.

Yet Russia would surely struggle to justify the inflicting of radiation poisoning on lands that it now claims to be part of the Motherland. Not to mention the potential for the prevailing winds to blow the radiation back into neighbouring Russian territory.

Fever Ray, Waxahatchee

The 47 year old Swedish electronic artist formerly known as Karin Drejier also used to be one half of a ground breaking band called the Knife. The spectrally paranoid new Fever Ray single “What They Call Us” explores the enervating notion that hell can be other people, at the office, on the street, everywhere...

Did you hear what they call us?
Did you hear what they said?
I've got a plan that's flexible
Just don't stop anywhere…

Here’s a more conventional example of good energy being worn down to the bone… Perpetual motion provides the means of escape here, too. The country waltz “ Abilene” is by Plains, a new collaborative project between Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield and the Texas singer songwriter Jess Williamson. The duo harmonize beautifully:

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