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Christchurch Call vs cybernaut sovereignty


John Perry Barlow, in A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, saw a new frontier of freedom for cybernauts keen to be rid of the petty intrusions of states. 'Governments of the Industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.'

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a visit to the Te Pou Herenga Waka facility on 19 May 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)The Christchurch shootings, inflicting 51 deaths upon worshippers at two mosques in quiet New Zealand on 15 March this year, spurred Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to take a more sceptical view about the so-called borderless medium that is the internet. Cybernauts are to be regarded with suspicion; content shared on the net, as a matter of regulatory interest.

In Paris, Ardern, along with French president Emmanuel Macron, leaders of several states and US tech giants, committed to a global pledge to 'eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online'.

The opening of the pledge sets the tone: 'On 15 March 2019, people looked on in horror as, for 17 minutes, a terrorist attack against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was live streamed.' It is instructive: the atrocity is highlighted, but the means of its dissemination singled out. The live stream, it is noted 'was viewed some 4000 times before being removed'.

What, then, is the focus of what is billed the 'Christchurch Call'? Is it the shattered, disturbed worldview of the Christchurch shooter that warrants correction, or the technology he sought to use in extolling his exploits? The pledge places the blame squarely on the medium, avoiding any sense of ideological repair. 'The attack was live streamed, went viral and remains available on the web despite the measures taken to remove it.'

The pledge tries to juggle regulatory control of content with 'the conviction that a free, open and secure internet offers extraordinary benefits to society. Respect for freedom of expression is fundamental.' But the focus here is unmistakable and open-ended: 'no one has the right to create and share terrorist and violent extremist content online'.

Vague commitments by governments and the tech giants, as outlined by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office, include 'building more inclusive, resilient communities to counter violent radicalisation' and 'enforcing laws that stop the production and dissemination of terrorist and extremist content online'. The way events are reported by media outlets is also a source of regulatory interest: the dangers of amplifying the content in question is noted. Expect more guarded reportage in future.


"Such sentiments are a far cry from Barlow's world of a broad, unimpaired cyber mind."


Online providers, in turn, are urged to 'take transparent, specific measures seeking to prevent the upload of terrorist and violent extremist content and to prevent its dissemination on social media and similar content-sharing services'. Transparent processes are advocated, including 'publishing the consequences of sharing terrorist and violent extremist content'.

While Ardern and similar proponents may be urging the creation of a more 'humane' and safe internet, the latitude of interference regarding internet content is unspecified. Terms such as 'extremism' and 'terrorism' tend to be liberally defined by perennially suspicious state authorities. Australia provided an unfortunate example of this with the introduction of the new offence of 'sharing of abhorrent violent material' in an effort to target certain live streamed material. 'It should not just be a matter of doing the right thing,' explained Prime Minister Scott Morrison. 'It should be the law.'

Tech giants present in Paris — Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Google and Amazon — have also appended their names to the call for action. Silicon Valley behemoths have come to accept, at least on some level, the proposition that their continued operation is dependent on assuming the role of content enforcers.

In a joint statement from the companies, all accepted that, 'The terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand in March were a horrifying tragedy. And so it is right that we come together, resolute in our commitment to ensure we are doing all we can to fight the hatred and extremism that lead to terrorist violence.' The troubling feature of this move is that governments are urging online companies to become vigilant gatekeepers and policing agents of internet material. In doing so, an undue degree of importance is placed on the devil of technology rather than the weakness of humanity.

Such sentiments are a far cry from Barlow's world of a broad, unimpaired cyber mind. While Ardern's sentiments are well meant, they risk leading to unintended consequences. The technology itself is being seen as the issue, rather than the troubled ideas of those Mark Lilla distinctively termed 'ship-wrecked minds'. Woe, then, to notions of an open, neutral internet, if, indeed, it ever existed.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a visit to the Te Pou Herenga Waka facility on 19 May 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Christchurch attacks, Facebook



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