John Armstrong's opinion: Christchurch Call 'nothing short of a triumph' for Jacinda Ardern

Last Wednesday’s launch of her  “Christchurch Call” — the mechanism Jacinda Ardern has engineered to try and stop the internet being used as a tool for terror — was nothing short of a triumph for New Zealand’s prime minister.

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Jacinda Ardern and Emmanuel Macron chaired the summit. Source: Breakfast

And no small one at that. 

Getting a global figure as powerful as the president of France to not only offer his backing for her initiative to cleanse the internet in the wake of the massacres at Christchurch’s two mosques, but to also give it the oomph to make it happen was a diplomatic coup on her part of quite staggering proportions.

To end up co-hosting the official unveiling of Christchurch Call amidst the gilt and splendour of the Elysee Palace, the president’s official residence in Paris, would have been the icing on Ardern’s cake.

Yet back home the response from movers and shakers, opinion-makers, the mainstream media and the New Zealand public as a whole has been somewhat muted to say the least.

Maybe that is because the obligations imposed on governments and tech companies which add their names to the document setting out the provisions of Christchurch Call will have surprised no-one.

The requirement for on online service providers “to implement immediate, effective measures to mitigate the specific risk that terrorist and violent extremist content is disseminated through live-streaming, including identification of content for real-time review” does not tell you a lot you didn’t already know —once you have deciphered the techno-speak gobbledygook that is.

Maybe — and this might be the crucial reason for the ho-hum reaction — those obligations are not binding on those countries and corporations which become signatories to the document. 

That means the Christchurch Call will carries little — if any — weight in international law.

Boil it down and it is basically nothing more than a list of good intentions.

Maybe the public’s refusal to get excited about the initiative is also in part down to the Prime Minister progressively both flagging and drip-feeding its provisions in the days leading up to Wednesday’s ceremony which had Ardern standing shoulder-to-shoulder in posed solidarity with Emmanuel Macron.

This was not merely another example of New Zealand punching above its weight. This was New Zealand punching in the heavy-weight division of global politics.

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The Prime Minister chaired the Voices for Action Conference in Paris overnight ahead of the Christchurch call. Source: Breakfast

Her Christchurch Call is additionally audacious as it is ambitious.

It has to be. In order to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content which is posted online requires a co-ordinated response worldwide. Ardern has made it her overriding mission that the events of March 15 “must never happen again”.

It is a mission which is going to require full deployment of her formidable political instincts accompanied by her diamond-hard resolve and her relentless focus on the job at hand.

Still, it is a very tall order. So far, just 17 countries plus the European Commission have pledged their support for the nine-point action plan unveiled by Ardern and Macron.

As Ardern keeps cautioning everyone, it is still very early days.

There has already been one seeming major knock-back.

The United States has professed to having some sympathy for Ardern’s project, but insists that the right to freedom of speech is so deeply enshrined in the American constitution that signing up to Christchurch Call is completely unfeasible.

Maybe. But that is a rather convenient excuse for inaction. It is as much or even more likely that the idea of other countries telling some of his country’s biggest business success stories what they should or should not do does not sit comfortably with Donald Trump’s war cry of “America First”.

The United States’ absenting itself from this particular battlefield in the War on Terror might be seen as stymying Ardern’s campaign to disinfect the internet before it has even begun.

It certainly won’t make things any easier. But the White House going AWOL is not as damaging to her cause as one might think.  

What matters is that tech giants such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter who roam far and wide beyond the borders of the United States are on board. That they have signed up is not out of respect for the dead of Christchurch. It is all about protecting their financial bottom-lines.

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The Prime Minister spoke with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Paris. Source: Breakfast

Skeptics would argue any pledges of support from such conglomerates are worthless given the provisions of the action plan are not binding on participants.

But there is a subtle game being played here. 

The message from Ardern and Macron is that those mega-companies have two choices: either they lift their game when it comes to blocking the uploading of malignant content or they will find authorities doing the job for them.

It is thus very much in the self-interest of the tech giants to be inside the regulation-making tent than outside, thus giving themselves at least some influence on the rules that many government authorities outside the United States are itching to write to bring those digital behemoths into line. That is the true import of Wednesday’s launch. That is why the occasion was a triumph for Ardern.

The atrocities of March 15 amplified in exponential terms the already deepening frustration of digital watchdogs, especially European-based ones which have been bombarded with ever more frequent and louder demands that the monopolistic tendencies of outfits such as Facebook are curbed.

The horror of the lone gunman’s videoing and live-streaming of the slaughter took things to a new level, further fuelling the momentum for change.

Ardern's harnessing of that push for reform saw the Christchurch Call turn from idea to fact in just six weeks.

She has made herself someone to whom other leaders have difficulty in saying “no”.

That momentum will inevitably fade, however. 

That is why she needs Macron alongside her. 

The French president has been a severe critic of Facebook and its co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The latter has snubbed Ardern with alacrity. He cannot get away with playing similar games with Macron.

With Brexit removing Britain as a player and the pending retirement of the all-powerful German chancellor Angela Merkel, France’s influence within the European Union — already immense — has been further boosted.

For solid evidence of that, just note the one-on-one meeting between Zuckerberg and Macron in Paris just days prior to the launch of Ardern’s initiative. 

Zuckerberg is a CEO under immense strain right now. Facebook is facing a fine of up to $5 billion for privacy breaches. It is the subject of numerous inquiries and investigations in the United States and Europe. There are mounting noises from official bodies on both sides of the Atlantic to end Facebook’s market dominance by breaking up  the behemoth into smaller units to enhance competition.

In seeking a meeting with Macron, Zuckerberg would have been seeking a clear indication of Macron’s stance on far greater regulatory oversight of his company’s practices in the European market.

Facebook has been in constant retreat since the mosque massacres.

Zuckerberg initially saw no reason to tighten his company’s rules on live-streaming. He then realised that the likes of Macron had no confidence in Facebook regulating itself. The company has now accepted it has to come to the party or it will find itself having to comply with an even tougher regime imposed on its operations.

It is now trying to satisfy its critics by meeting them halfway.

Just hours before the Ardern-Macron “summit” got underway, Facebook suddenly announced that under new rules that the company had just introduced the Christchurch gunman would not have been allowed to livestream his attack because he would not have been able to use his live account that day.

That begged the question as to why Facebook did not do that in the first place. Unlike the floundering Zuckerberg, New Zealand’s prime minister has been a model of consistency.

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The changes come in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attack livestreamed on the platform. Source: 1 NEWS

Ardern has operated according to Helen Clark’s maxim that it is better to under-promise and over-deliver than vice versa.

So far, she has been on the positive side of that ledger.

The big test will come in October.

It is Ardern’s and Macron’s intention to use the opportunity presented by leaders rolling up for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York to assess whether any “meaningful” progress is being made. That requires the Christchurch Call deliver concrete results — and far sooner than later. It is high-wire stuff. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Right now, however, Ardern would not want it any other way.