Look out Mark - here comes Jacinda
By Richard Harman (author)
The Prime Minister is preparing to take her campaign to regulate social media to the world.
And she appears to be ready to take an international leadership role as she tries to bring platforms like Facebook under some sort of international regulatory regime.
The campaign can capitalise on the moral authority she has acquired as a consequence of the Christchurch massacre --- which was promoted and then streamed live on Facebook without any intervention by Facebook itself.
Ardern will not be alone.
The massacre has been another catalyst in a gathering international move towards regulating social media.
Yesterday Britain unveiled a White paper which would make social media owners personally liable
There is a strong chance Jacinda Ardern could become the international face of the movement to constrain social media in much the same way her predecessor, David Lange, became the international face of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s.
POLITIK understands that already the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has begun working on the issue though it is obviously early days and it does not appear yet that either the Prime Minister or the Ministry has settled on a final approach.
At her post-Cabinet press conference yesterday, Ardern, said she preferred a global approach.
“These are global platforms," she said.
“My strong view is that if we wish to establish a step change in behaviour that we need to take a global approach.
“It's all well and good to have domestic legislation that we think is going to do the trick.
“But in my view, it would be almost strengthened if we had the international community asking the same thing.
“And so that's something that I'm interested in.”
Ardern has been reluctant to engage directly with the social media companies since the Christchurch massacre because she wants to “get her ducks in a row first”, one advisor told POLITIK.
But there is an international surge to control social media.
EU countries have focussed on Facebook’s use of the vast amount of data it collects from its users.
“Facebook will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook user accounts,” said Germany’s Federal Cartel Office President Andreas Mundt said in a statement in February announcing the decision.
The German decision effectively undermines Facebook’s whole commercial model which relies on using the data to precisely target advertising.
Britain yesterday published a White Paper which said its government said it would look into possibly using fines, blocking access to websites, and imposing liability on senior tech company management for failing to limit the distribution of harmful content.
It would also set up a regulator to police the rules.
Ardern has discussed this proposal with British PM, Theresa May.
“It was a preliminary conversation we talked about the work that the UK particularly via its Select Committee had undertaken," she said.
Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner watchdog is currently investigating Facebook under new European privacy laws.
That prompted Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to fly to Dublin last week to meet with Irish MPs agreeing with them that governments needed to take “a more active role” in regulating the online sphere.
And on March 30, he wrote an op-ed in the “Washington Post” saying “I believe we need new regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.”
“Facebook gives everyone a way to use their voice, and that creates real benefits — from sharing experiences to growing movements.
“As part of this, we have a responsibility to keep people safe on our services.
“That means deciding what counts as terrorist propaganda, hate speech and more.
“We continually review our policies with experts, but at our scale, we'll always make mistakes and decisions that people disagree with.”
But at the same time as Zuckerberg was writing this, Facebook's head of counter-terrorism, Brian Fishman, published a paper in the Texas National Security Review arguing against government regulation.
“Focusing on regulation as the primary mode through which society can address terrorist activity online is misplaced,” he wrote.
“Indeed, the singular focus on government as the only actor in counter-terrorism operations online is outdated.
“Many tech companies actively counter terrorists online — and the effects of that work are almost certainly broader and more important to overall online counter-terrorism efforts than anything required by government regulation.
“The question of whether or not governments should require tech companies to conduct counter-terrorism operations is, of course, politically important.
“However, the voluntary efforts made by these companies are likely to have a far greater impact on addressing the problem of terrorist exploitation of the Internet.”
This difference between Zuckerberg and Fishman demonstrates that what Zuckerberg appears to be saying may not be what he actually means.
For that reason, Ardern is careful not to seek an early meeting with him until she is clear what her own strategy might be and where the rest of the international community is headed.
Looking at the different moves being made across Europe, Ardern said none were exactly the same.
“So my question here would do those legislative tools answer the questions and challenges that we face through the 15th of March.
“If they don't what more should we ask and should we be asking it together.”
Ardern’s advisors believe she brings a unique perspective to the international debate; not only is she now recognised as the face of compassion and sympathy for the Christchurch victims but she is also at 38 someone who has from her teenage years on grown up with the internet. She is a digital native.
She is also naturally at home with people from the digital industries and met with a group in Auckland over the weekend to discuss these issues.
She is seeking their approval to name them, but she said it wasn't a formal group.
“It's become clear to me that there's obviously been some debate to date around the social media space and the presence of violent terrorist images and content generally.
“I wanted to make sure that I had the views of those who work in this space particularly given that questions have been raised around what role New Zealand could or should play in this debate and at an international level.”
Fate can play strange hands to political leaders; the woman who said she wanted climate change to be her nuclear-free moment may instead have just found that moment on the internet.