Tech giants beef up body to fight extremist content

New Zealand's PM Jacinda Ardern (right) and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and current chair of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), give a news conference on the sidelines during the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit, on Sept 23, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - Tech companies led by Facebook on Monday (Sept 23) joined world leaders in ramping up an industry body to weed out extremist content online, giving it a permanent staff.

Facebook announced the steps at the United Nations, during a meeting with New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has taken up the cause of fighting online extremism after a March massacre by a white supremacist at two mosques in Christchurch.

"We are trying to create a civil defense-style mechanism. The same way 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," she told reporters.

Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and YouTube in 2017 formed the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a vaguely conceived alliance tasked with tackling the most dangerous material on social media.

But tech companies came under renewed criticism after a white supremacist in March killed worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

He live-streamed the bloodbath and posted a manifesto online that was full of his racist conspiracy theories.

Appearing with the New Zealand leader, Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said the company took down 1.5 million potential views of the grisly video - 1.2 million before anyone had the chance to look.

"The gap between the 1.2 and the 1.5 is where we acknowledge we need to do better," Ms Sandberg said.

"We can't wait until a moment like this happens again. We need to do the hard work now, to establish the systems and protocols and the cooperations" among countries and companies, she said.

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

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

Under Monday's announcement, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism will be considered an independent body and enjoy a dedicated staff under an executive director.

While the industry will lead the forum's operating board, non-governmental groups will head an advisory board.

The governments of the United States, France, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Japan will also play an advisory role, along with UN and European Union experts.

The forum will still amount to a voluntary effort by tech companies to police themselves, with Facebook saying that they are trying to do better to identify extremist content.

Government regulation is anathema for major US tech companies and their libertarian-minded philosophy, although a growing number of countries outside the West have sought to force social media platforms to censor unwanted content.

Ms Ardern indicated she had no intention of seeking new regulations, which she said made little sense when pursuing ideas such as steering social media users away from extremist material to alternative, curated content.

"If we want the greatest gains, we actually need to collaborate," she said. "There is nothing we had seen, even at this point several months on, that has ever suggested to me that any of these tech companies had an interest in providing a platform for hatred and violence."

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