A few days ago, I attended a Paris Peace Forum session on Christchurch Call to Action. I am one of the co-chairs of Christchurch Call Advisory Network. The Christchurch Call Advisory Network is a network of civil society members including academics, digital rights activists and other civil society organizations active in online platforms governance. The New Zealand and French government established this network to receive advice and expertise for the operationalization of the Christchurch Call commitments. French and New Zealand government and a handful of tech-corporations in 2019 made the Christchurch Call commitments after the Christchurch mosque massacre during which the terrorist broadcasted the massacre on various social media platforms. The commitments aim to eradicate terrorist and violent extremist content online.
This blog is about several interventions I made during the session and also some personal reflections about multistakeholder approaches to content governance on the Internet.
First, I should point out that civil society has seen a significant improvement in its inclusion since the New Zealand and French governments launched Christchurch Call. In the beginning of the process, the governments and tech-corporations had round tables about inclusion of civil society while members of civil society organizations were watching from the audience. In 2021, during the Paris Peace Forum session on Christchurch Call, a government representative stepped down to share the platform with civil society members so that they might take part in the conversation as equal participants. The support of the governments goes beyond that. New Zealand and France both have been funding the activities of the network. We have various means of communication with the French and New Zealand governments. We are now more hopeful that we are on a multistakeholder path. The Call community is building multistakeholder structures that any member could use to raise an online governance issue related to terrorist content. The New Zealand and French governments aim for these groups to become more autonomous and they have helped with gathering key actors and decision-makers.
Obviously, there are many challenges ahead. Civil society needs to be mindful of the risk of being co-opted by other actors and turning into a multistakeholder rubber stamp that legitimizes other actors’ actions. The Christchurch Call commitments were drafted and signed with no participation from civil society. So, being involved with every step of implementing the Call is important. As a transnational collective, we also need to be more effective in providing advice and expertise for other initiatives that work on governing extremist content online. Last and perhaps the most important is we need to have avenues to influence the online terrorist content laws and regulations that the governments come up with.
Including civil society in governance approaches is a way to differentiate a democratic mindset from an authoritarian mindset on how to govern violent extremist and terrorist content on the Internet. Otherwise, governments around the world have almost the same tools in their toolbox for governing terrorist content: they use punitive measures that restrict freedom and affect the broader Internet ecosystem.
The challenge that we have faced in implementing the multistakeholder model is that the multistakeholder model is not suitable or possible for everything related to online governance. Some part of the Internet can work without the multistakeholder model. Large tech-corporations that are centralized enough do not need to cooperate with stakeholders such as civil society or even the technical community to remove content from their platforms. For some parts of the Internet, multistakeholder governance is a necessity, because it can’t work in any other way. But the social media platforms, at least on issues related to content governance, do not need multistakeholder input as a matter of function — only as a matter of legitimacy.
To create the need to govern through multistakeholder approaches, key decision-makers such as the governments can use their political capital to make consultation with other stakeholders a necessity for tech-corporations. In the past, they used that power to outsource regulation with no regard for other stakeholders. But this might not be the case for the Christchurch Call. So it makes sense to remain hopeful that the Christchurch Call might grow into a strong multistakeholder platform with the mandate of governing online violent extremist and terrorist content. After years of conversations, we can be cautiously optimistic that the multistakeholder approaches to social media governance are emerging.