Dr. Richard Burchill, the Director of Research and Engagement for TRENDS Research & Advisory
On 15 March 2019, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinta Arden and the French President Emmanuel Macron launched the Christchurch Call to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. The Christchurch Call is a direct response to the violent attacks in Christchurch earlier in the year. The perpetrator live streamed the attack and clearly had been active online expressing his views, leading many to say it was an attack made for social media. The Call was signed by 17 national governments, the European Commission, and eight online service providers, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
The Christchurch Call is a positive development as it brings together private companies, governments and the public to discuss the use of online services for disseminating terrorist and extremist content. It is also to be welcomed as it keeps the discussion going on the role of online service providers and their responsibilities in this area. It is further significant for it opens an opportunity to have more open debate and discussion on what constitutes extremism and how claims for the importance of freedom of expression should not be used to discriminate and degrade others through the denial of human dignity-a common aspect of extremist ideologies.
The Christchurch Call is directed at stepping up action for preventing the dissemination and amplification of terrorist and extremist content online. The Call is a significant development as it is a public statement agreed to by governments and service providers, as well as including civil society. Cooperation and collaboration is necessary for dealing with online extremist content and the Christchurch Call provides the foundations for finding new approaches to dealing with the use of online services for spreading terrorist and extremist content. The Call does not create any legal obligations for states or online providers. Rather it sets out a framework for “collective, voluntary commitments from Governments and online service providers intended to address the issue of terrorist and violent extremist content online.”
Under the Call, governments commit to further efforts for countering the drivers of terrorism and violent extremism, strengthening resilience in society, resist extremism through education, ensure applicable laws are effectively enforced, encourage the media to prevent amplification of terrorist and extremist content, and support industry frameworks for limiting the amplification of such content. And governments commit to further measures that can be undertaken to support the capacity and ability of smaller online service providers to prevent the dissemination of terrorist and extremist content.
Online Service Providers commit to a range of measures directed the upload of extremist material and the dissemination and amplification of such material. To achieve this attention is given in the Call to more transparent measures to prevent the upload of terrorist and extremist content along with effective notices and takedown procedures. Furthermore, the online service providers commit to setting up community standards on the use and dissemination of terrorist and extremist content, clarifying policies for detecting and removing this content and actually enforcing the standards the providers put in place. Online service providers also commit to measures that will prevent the live streaming of terrorist and extremist content, more public reporting on the detection and removal of terrorist and extremism content and improving the algorithms that amplify content.
Collectively government and service providers commit to numerous measures in support of the Call that focus on the contributions and role of civil society. These include working with civil society groups to promote positive alternative messages to the messages of terrorism and extremism, developing effective interventions, developing of technical solutions for preventing the dissemination of terrorist and extremist content and supporting further research on the issues raised in the Call. There is also a commitment for increased transnational cooperation amongst law enforcement agencies, supporting smaller platforms to build capacity, collaboration amongst states for the development of best practices and for effective rapid responses through increased information sharing. The Call concludes with a final commitment to “develop and support a range of practical, non-duplicative initiatives to ensure that this pledge is delivered.”
The Call is significant for it is a public commitment from states and online providers to take more action collectively in relation to terrorist and extremist content. The Call recognises the “need for action and enhanced cooperation among the wide range of actors with influence over this issue”. One area that will benefit from enhanced cooperation across a range of actors will be the discussion and debate on the role of human rights standards in efforts to prevent the dissemination of terrorist and extremist content. The Call sets itself within a human rights framework whereby “all action on this issue must be consistent with principles of a free, open and secure internet, without compromising human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression.” As is common when discussing limitations upon online content a great deal of attention is on how measures will impact freedom of expression.
The Christchurch Call gives particular attention to the potential impact on freedom of expression that action to limit online content might have. Upholding freedom of expression has a prominent place in the overall objectives of the Call and is raised in relation to the enforcement of laws, regulations, policy measures, community and industry standards, and in relation to national cooperation measures to prevent the upload, dissemination or amplification of terrorist and extremist content.
When examining the policy options available for addressing extremist content in any form, too often freedom of expression or, in some cases, freedom of religion, are given a position of primacy or considerations of an “open internet” are given greater emphasis. What is missing is greater recognition of how freedom of expression can be used to deny fundamental freedoms to others, in particular the right to human dignity.
Respect for human dignity, without discrimination, is a foundational element for all human rights instruments and the basis from which all other human rights emanate. Respect for human dignity is not a difficult matter as it calls for recognition that all other human beings possess an inherent moral value that is to be reciprocally respected.
This is a moral argument that is reinforced in the international human rights framework in multiple ways. The prohibition on discrimination is central to the realisation of human rights. Furthermore, there are provisions that prevent the use of enumerated rights for denying rights to others. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights sets out that none of the rights therein outlined allow for any activity “aimed at the destruction” of any of the other rights in the document. Both International Covenants that entered into force in the 1970s set out that nothing in these instruments can be interpreted as allowing for any activity “aimed at the destruction” of any of the other rights in the Covenants. Alongside provisions of this nature, freedom of expression in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is to be exercised with responsibility and respect for the rights of others.
When pursuing action to limit the dissemination and amplification of terrorist and extremist content online, freedom of expression is to be respected but there must also be respect for the human dignity of others. The denial of human dignity is a common factor across extremist ideologies, regardless of the source. The Christchurch attacker articulated a view of white supremacy that denies equal worth and human dignity to all non-white individuals or groups. Religious based extremist ideologies, such as those of ISIS, will articulate justifications for public discrimination and violence upon those who it is determined are not true believers and therefore, in the view of the extremist, do not have equal moral worth as human beings.
These are clear denials of human dignity and cannot be accepted as inevitable by-products of freedom of expression or an open internet. The free expression of ideas, views and opinions is essential for any society but so is mutual recognition of human dignity without discrimination. In a situation where competing claims for human rights exist we need to give human dignity greater importance. The Christchurch Call appears to recognise this as both governments and online providers recognise the need to avoid “contributing to adverse human rights impacts.” It is hoped this means recognition that supporting one human right cannot result in the denial of human dignity.
The Christchurch Call situates itself in the context of international human rights, as well as human security. It recognises that the dissemination of extremist content can adversely impact human rights and that its dissemination has adverse impacts on victims and on global security. Complete denials of expression do not work and do not support security but neither does tolerating denials of human dignity. The extremists cannot be allowed to benefit from human rights while denying human rights to others.
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 The full text of the Christchurch Call is available at https://www.christchurchcall.com/ .
 Jeremy Waldron, The Harm in Hate Speech (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
 Stephen Darwall, “Equal Dignity and Rights” in R. Debes, ed., Dignity: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) p. 186.
 See UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights, UN Doc. A/HRC/34/56 (16 January 2017), paras. 50-52.