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Politics Social-media giants pledge joint action on online extremism at summit with Trudeau, other world leaders

Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter released a joint statement Wednesday in connection with an international summit in Paris.

CHARLES PLATIAU/AFP/Getty Images

The world’s largest social-media companies joined Canada and more than a dozen other countries in signing onto a global pledge to take stronger action to prevent the spread of violent extremism online. But analysts largely see the agreement as a symbolic gesture that comes with no enforcement powers and lacks the backing of Silicon Valley’s most powerful regulator, the U.S. government.

Canada is among 18 countries that said they would support the Christchurch Call to Action. The international agreement to tackle online extremism was drafted by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron two months after a gunman used Facebook to livestream attacks on two mosques in Christchurch that killed 51 people.

In Paris for a summit of world leaders and technology executives, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the international pledge is in line with the Canadian government’s national strategy on countering radicalization, which was launched in December. “Today, we are stepping up to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online,” Mr. Trudeau said in a statement.

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Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter jointly released a nine-point plan for addressing extremist and violent content. The promised measures include updating their terms of use and codes of conduct so that these policies “articulate a clear basis for removal of this content from our platforms.”

Other pledges focus on: creating new ways for users to report terrorist and violent extremist content; imposing “appropriate checks” on livestreaming; producing transparency reports as to how these new measures are enforced; and working together on open-source or shared technology to detect and remove extremist content.

The voluntary measures come at a time when governments are debating whether to impose new regulations on the globe’s web giants, including a push by some U.S. Democratic presidential candidates to break up big tech companies.

But the agreement lacks the support of the United States, where the majority of the world’s largest technology companies are located. The Trump administration said on Wednesday that the United States would not join the accord, citing concerns about free speech, a move that highlights the growing divide with other Western countries over how to police social-media platforms.

“We maintain that the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech,” the White House said in a statement.

The agreement is also voluntary and does not require countries that signed on to draft new enforcement policies. The accord also lacks specific details about how exactly governments expect tech firms to police their platforms and how those firms should be held accountable.

“This is a nice, non-binding agreement, where there are no mechanisms for enforcement that are being put in place,” said Robyn Caplan, research affiliate with the Data & Society Institute in New York. “So for at least the short term, it will have pretty limited effectiveness.”

In order to find a consensus, Ms. Ardern and Mr. Macron focused their efforts narrowly on violent extremist content rather than the broader system that enables dangerous content to be shared quickly across the internet.

“It makes it about a national-security issue and about violent extremism, said Taylor Owen, an associate professor of public policy at McGill University. “When really the problem … is embedded in a much bigger set of problems about harmful speech, about data privacy and content moderation writ large across these platforms.”

The agreement largely focuses on extremism in Western democracies and does not address the use of social media in countries such as Myanmar and India to incite political violence. “It’s in a way like PR, because they’re responding to France and New Zealand,” said Joan Donovan, of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “But we still have many, many instances of other kinds of hateful content, or white-supremacist or fundamentalist content, that has also gone unaddressed.”

However, analysts also say the joint consensus among so many countries could help embolden smaller democracies, such as Canada, that don’t have the global clout to pursue aggressive regulations against large, U.S.-based tech companies.

In Ottawa, the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics recently issued a summons for Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and chief operation officer Sheryl Sandberg to appear as witnesses in relation to a Privacy Commissioner’s report that criticized the company for not doing enough to protect the privacy of Canadian users.

Facebook spokeswoman Erin Taylor said the company will work with the committee to ensure that Facebook is “appropriately represented,” but declined to say whether either would appear.

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Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday that the federal government is considering whether it needs to introduce further measures in addition to the voluntary actions that the companies announced.

“I think it’s incredibly important that the Prime Minister is in Paris today with Prime Minister Ardern, with President Macron and a number of other world leaders to say that at the international level, we’re not going to accept this kind of incitement to violence and violent content on these platforms,” she said. “I think it’s important that we’re stating this and calling it out at an international level. And then, of course, we’re looking at what those sticks are within government.”

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