David Seymour: ‘Christchurch Call’ is classic Ardern

Opinion 29/04/2019

By David Seymour, ACT Party Leader.

The Government can’t even hire a Chief Technology Officer, but now the Prime Minister is going to tell Facebook and friends to eradicate terrorism from their platforms. Welcome to Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand.

As a quick refresher, the Chief Technology Officer saga was last year and went like this:

The Government wanted to hire someone fresh from the technology frontier to advise it on everything digital. A candidate thought he had the job and arranged to move his family home from New York.

Then the process started going wrong.

Many leaders of the New Zealand tech sector went berserk, saying the candidate was woefully unqualified. The Prime Minister was accused in Parliament of improperly intervening in the decision to hire him. The job offer was retracted. The Minister of Communications was sacked from Cabinet for her role in it all. The candidate walked away with over $100,000 of taxpayer money in compensation for being messed around.

The Government still doesn’t have a Chief Technology Officer.

Now the Prime Minister is off to Paris to tell the world’s largest social media companies not to livestream atrocities or host violent extremist content. It’s as though these companies are not already trying. If only they did try it would be easy, and the Government might be able to help them if it wasn’t.

Well, they are trying, but it’s not easy to identify a few hateful needles in a haystack of positive worldwide interaction. Every month, 2.4 billion people log on to Facebook. Every day, they watch 100 million hours of video and upload 350 million photos. And that’s just one social networking site.

The only way to stop violent content is through artificial intelligence, or machine learning, where a computer studies many images humans have seen and objected to. It then learns to recognise ones that are not the same, but similar. The easy stuff is nudity. Try uploading any naked photo or video on Facebook and you’ll be immediately blocked because Facebook’s algorithms know what a human body looks like from every possible angle.

The problem on March 15 was that, thankfully, Facebook’s algorithms hadn’t seen many, if any, videos like the one streamed by the terrorist. It was ultraviolence, so surreal it looked like the video games that millions of people play. Once they’d identified the specific video, though, it was easy to stop the whole or any part of it being uploaded.

No Government can solve that technical problem.

What they might do is put in place draconian laws that force social media companies to act as their censors.

Germany’s Network Enforcement Act, or NetzDG as it is more commonly known, requires companies to make difficult decisions about whether users have violated the law within a short space of time. If they fail to remove illegal content quickly, they face fines of more than $80 million.

Social media companies are unlikely to err on the side of freedom of expression.

Source: Getty

UK lawmakers want to follow suit, but Human Rights Watch has said the German law is “vague, overbroad, and turns private companies into overzealous censors to avoid steep fines.” The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression said the law was at odds with international human rights standards.

Ardern’s Government wants to join Germany and the UK.

A consequence of overzealous censorship is that more people will be pushed into the dark corners of the internet. Where did the Christchurch terrorist and his ilk congregate? 8-chan. What is 8-chan? It’s where the outcasts of 4-chan went. What is 4-chan? It’s where the outcasts of mainstream social media platforms went.

Governments will find an unlikely ally in fighting this kind of proliferation. The big players, especially Facebook, will be quite happy to support laws that protect their market position from upstarts. Mark Zuckerberg has already said he’s very happy to help governments draft new laws.

Nearly every large business in history has been happy for governments to regulate their actual and potential competitors.

You can guarantee that if there are any new laws, governments will be stitched up by smarter people who work for incumbent companies. Competition will suffer. Whether objectionable material is actually reduced will be an afterthought.

When the Prime Minister says she wants to stop things like the Christchurch video being streamed, guess what? That’s what the likes of Facebook (who do have a Chief Technology Officer – the same one for six years, in fact) are trying to do. They are a company whose revenue is about the same as the New Zealand Government’s tax take, with some of the best minds in the world, at the forefront of technology globally.

It’s classic Ardern. Actually, it’s classic left-wing politics.

Forget that the world is filled with difficult problems that talented people are diligently working to solve.

Just dial up a large and successful business, wring your hands, offer no helpful solution, and blame them for everything. If only our Government could hire a Chief Technology Officer to explain the technical facts first.

David Seymour is Leader of The ACT Party.