Microsoft’s Brad Smith calls for action after New Zealand attacks: ‘Words alone are not enough’

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Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith. (GeekWire File Photo)

Microsoft President Brad Smith is calling for action from his tech industry peers in the wake of a massacre at two New Zealand mosques earlier this month. The shooter live-streamed the attack on Facebook for 17 minutes and copies of the footage spread quickly throughout the internet.

“Words alone are not enough,” Smith wrote in a blog post over the weekend outlining recommendations for tech companies to curb the spread of violent videos and content.

Smith adds his voice to a chorus of government leaders and activists calling on American tech companies to do more to crack down on extremist content. The internet provides a layer of cover and anonymity for behaviors that wouldn’t fly offline. It also allows individuals with fringe ideas to find one another and normalizes beliefs that might otherwise exist in silos.

“As an industry, tech companies created new services to bring out the best – not the worst – in people,” Smith wrote. “To break down boundaries, not sow division. But as with virtually every technology ever invented, people are using digital services for both good and ill.”

Here are Smith’s recommendations for the industry:

  • Find and correct weaknesses in current tools, like learning to flag edited versions of the same video
  • Create browser-based tools that block violent content
  • Share discoveries and technology across the industry
  • Create a “major event” protocol where tech companies can work together in a virtual command center to respond to incidents like the one in New Zealand

The foundations for some of the work Smith is advocating for already exist. Two years ago, Microsoft, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter created the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a group with a shared database of terrorist content and machine learning tools to identify violent images. They were used more than a million times in the 24 hours following the Christchurch shootings, according to Smith.

Facebook already uses Microsoft’s PhotoDNA software to find objectionable content and Google has an open-source version of the technology. Facebook says it removed more than 1.2 million videos of the New Zealand attack during the first 24 hours and an additional 300,000 copies after that.

“While these are vital steps, one of the lessons from New Zealand is that the industry rightly will be judged not only by what it prevented, but by what it failed to stop,” Smith wrote.

Beyond taking steps to reduce the spread of violent content, Smith urged the tech industry to “foster a healthier online environment more broadly.”

“We all need to treat others with respect and dignity, respect each other’s differences, pause before replying and stand up for ourselves and for others,” Smith wrote. “This too is an area on which we can build further.”

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