White House refuses to join global effort to tackle online extremism

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The governments of New Zealand and France announced on Wednesday a voluntary plan to help tackle online extremism. The initiative has the support of seventeen countries, including Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Tech giants Google and Facebook have also voiced their approval.

But the United States declined to support it.

The Christchurch Call is an agreement which urges governments and technology companies to do more to combat online extremism and to lessen its impact when an attack occurs.

Among the commitments are a pledge to enforce laws prohibiting the dissemination of violent extremist content, to develop and promote grassroots strategies to counter extremism and radicalization and, for online service providers, to consistently and transparently enforce community standards.

The initiative was spearheaded by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron during a summit in Paris. Both their countries have learned the tragic lesson of how online radicalization can lead to deadly real-world violence.

In March, a far-right terrorist radicalized on fringe online sites livestreamed his attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51. And in 2015, the ISIS-linked terrorists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, France, killing 12, name-dropped the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who regularly uploaded sermons preaching violence onto the internet.

While the agreement is non-binding with no regulatory measures — more of acknowledgment of the seriousness and global reach of the problem, as opposed to a series of new laws — there has already been some reaction from Big Tech firms. The same day the agreement was announced, new rules went into place on Facebook to immediately ban people from live-streaming on the site if they break Facebook’s “most serious policies,” namely spreading extremist propaganda.

“Terrorism and violent extremism are complex societal problems that require an all-of-society response,” Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter said in a joint statement in reaction to the agreement. “The commitments we are making today will further strengthen that Governments, society and the technology industry must have to address this threat.”

But the White House said it is already being “proactive” in its efforts to counter online extremism, and it worries that the non-binding agreement might threaten the First Amendment.

“We maintain that the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech,” the White House said on Wednesday. “Thus we emphasize the importance of promoting credible, alternative narratives as the primary means by which we can defeat terrorist messaging.”

“While the United States is not currently in a position to join the endorsement, we continue to support the overall goals reflected,” the statement added.

The all-encompassing nature of the First Amendment has been a repeated obstacle that federal prosecutors have run into when trying to classify homegrown violent extremists as terrorists. As Michael McGarrity, assistant director to the FBI for counter-terrorism, told the Committee on Homeland Security last week, because homegrown white nationalism is an ideology, it is protected by the First Amendment in a way that foreign terrorist organizations are not.

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