The White House on Wednesday declined to join a global call to fight online terror, citing concerns about freedom of speech but in the process stoking a new controversy over its response to extremism.
The move drew condemnation from lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have been calling for tech giants to rein in the scourge of potentially radicalizing material on their platforms in the wake of the livestreamed attacks on worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March.
“It’s disappointing that once again the White House wants to put the U.S. at odds with our allies in establishing reasonable global internet norms,” Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTrump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact Trump Jr. reaches deal to testify with Senate Intelligence McConnell: No one tells Burr how to run Intelligence panel MORE (D-Va.), a vocal tech industry critic, told The Hill in a statement.
The White House’s decision to opt out puts the U.S. at odds with France, Canada, the European Union and the rest of the 17 countries that signed on to the so-called Christchurch Call, the largest-ever international campaign against online extremism and terrorist content to date.
Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube — all American companies — also signed on to the nonbinding pledge, which was unveiled at a summit with global leaders in Paris on Wednesday.
President TrumpDonald John TrumpNapolitano claims Trump violated separation of powers 3 times in last week Work on surprise medical bills goes into overdrive Trump pardons media tycoon, former GOP leader of California State Assembly MORE did not attend the Paris gathering, which was spearheaded by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronTrump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order to protect US networks from Chinese tech | Huawei downplays order | Trump declines to join effort against online extremism | Facebook restricts livestreaming | FCC proposes new tool against robocalls White House won’t endorse global call to fight online extremism after New Zealand attack MORE. British Prime Minister Theresa MayTheresa Mary MayTrump’s global economic miscalculation may cost him in 2020 London mayor on state visit: UK ‘shouldn’t be rolling out the red carpet’ for Trump Twitter suspended more than 160,000 accounts over terrorism in second half of 2018 MORE and Canadian Prime Minister Justin TrudeauJustin Pierre James TrudeauTrump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact Dem senator asks Trudeau to ensure NBA’s Enes Kanter safe passage to Canada Mexico now biggest US trading partner, data shows MORE were in attendance, as well as top tech executives including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Microsoft President Brad Smith.
The Christchurch Call asks the top social media companies to step up their efforts to investigate and remove toxic online content from their platforms, urging them to commit to share more information about online terrorism with government authorities and study whether their algorithms push users toward extreme content.
The effort comes after footage of the New Zealand shooting spread quickly across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other major platforms earlier this year. The social media giants scrambled to remove the 17-minute livestream, but the video took on a life of its own, with users at some points uploading and sharing clips as quickly as once per second.
Since then, lawmakers and regulators around the world have pledged to crack down on extremist content, particularly from white supremacists, and have pressed the companies to take concrete actions or face penalties.
But the U.S. has walked a finer line, citing concerns over freedom of expression and signaling it is more hesitant than other countries to call for the outright removal of certain content.
The White House in a statement said that while it stands with the international community in “condemning terrorist and violent extremist content online,” it is not currently “in a position to join the endorsement.”
The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy said in the statement that it believes the “best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech.”
“We maintain that the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech, and thus we emphasize the importance of promoting credible, alternative narratives as the primary means by which we can defeat terrorist messaging,” the statement reads.
“We encourage technology companies to enforce their terms of service and community standards that forbid the use of their platforms for terrorist purposes,” it added.
The decision, though, could open up the Trump administration to criticism it is not doing enough to combat white supremacists.
Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersTrump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact FBI official sees ‘tide change’ in how platforms handle extremist content America must leap at opportunities to bolster national security in space MORE (R-Ala.), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, in a statement praised the companies that signed on to the pledge but did not mention the White House’s decision to keep the U.S. out of it.
“I applaud these companies for taking new steps in light of the recent acts of violence,” Rogers said, raising concerns about “fringe websites,” such as 8chan and Gab, which have been connected to the Christchurch shooting and other attacks by white supremacists.
The Anti-Defamation League in a statement said the decision indicates the U.S. is “falling behind” on addressing the “global terror threat” of white supremacy.
“It is incredibly discouraging that the U.S. government seems unwilling to even take part in these discussions and explore possibilities to counter this scourge,” the ADL said in the statement.
Critics have been raising concerns over the Trump administration’s treatment of white extremist violence, and lawmakers at a House hearing on domestic terrorism last week urged representatives with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to ramp up their efforts to address the proliferating white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements online.
Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: Instagram cracks down on anti-vaccine tags | Facebook co-founder on fallout from call to break up company | House Dems reintroduce election security bill | Lawmakers offer bill requiring cyber, IT training for House House Dems reintroduce bill to protect elections from cyberattacks Hillicon Valley: Trump signs cybersecurity executive order | Facebook bans ‘dangerous’ figures | Dems slam tech’s response to extremist content | Trump meets Foxconn CEO over Wisconsin factory plans MORE (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee — which has been pressing tech companies over the issue of online terrorist content — told The Hill that he believes the White House’s decision stems from a reluctance to crack down on right-wing extremists.
“I’m not surprised,” Thompson said. “They’ve demonstrated that … anything remotely related to right-wing terrorism, they’re just reluctant to be critical.”
Lara Pham, the deputy director of the Counter Extremism Project, called the White House’s move “disappointing.”
“It obviously indicates that unfortunately the U.S. in many ways is still behind other countries on this issue,” Pham said.
Governments in London, Paris and Berlin have been working on legislation that would force tech companies to monitor their platforms or else face steep penalties. But in the U.S., there is no similar congressional push.
Twitter, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon on Wednesday announced an additional set of commitments to accompany the Christchurch Call. In a statement, the companies vowed to coordinate their efforts against terrorist and extremist content, establish specific guidelines against the harmful material, invest in technology to automatically remove violent extremist content and more.
“The terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March were a horrifying tragedy,” the companies wrote in a joint statement. “And so it is right that we come together, resolute in our commitment to ensure we are doing all we can to fight the hatred and extremism that lead to terrorist violence.”
The companies already do much of what they laid out in the statement, but Pham said the most “interesting” piece is the commitment to provide more oversight over livestreaming.
Facebook on Wednesday announced that it will start restricting the use of its livestreaming feature for users who violate its content policies.
Facebook Live has been a controversial feature since its inception years ago, and it has been used to publicize acts of violence multiple times. Some critics have called for Facebook to remove the livestreaming tool altogether.
The Christchurch Call is a nonbinding, voluntary pledge, and each government is being encouraged to draw up their own plans to deal with violent content online.
Pham told The Hill that she hopes the document will be regarded as a “framework for regulation in the future.”
But on Capitol Hill, Democrats are warning that they could take action if companies do not adhere to their promises.
“I think as legislators, we have to send a message that if you’re not going to do it as a good business practice, Congress is going to have to step in,” Thompson said.