Q&A: Microsoft President Brad Smith on ‘historic’ international partnership to curb online extremism

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Microsoft President Brad Smith. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Six weeks ago, Microsoft President Brad Smith sat down with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to discuss how to prevent the online spread of a violent attack, like the one that had just occurred in Christchurch.

That was the beginning of what would become a partnership of nations across the globe and several of America’s most powerful technology companies.

On Wednesday, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter joined forces with the leaders of France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and others to form the “Christchurch call to action.” They launched the new coalition at an event in Paris. It involves a broad range of commitments from U.S. tech companies to curb the spread of violent extremist content on their platforms.

GeekWire caught up with Smith by phone following the event. Continue reading for our edited conversation about the Christchurch call to action.

GeekWire: How did it go this morning?

Brad Smith: It went well. It was actually a meeting of real and perhaps even historic importance. We had nine heads of state and the leaders from a number of tech companies come together at the Élysée, which is basically the French White House. It’s where President Macron lives and works. It was all to sign and adopt this Christchurch call to action to address the problems of extremist violent content online, to try to prevent what the world witnessed two months ago in Christchurch, with the terrible tragedy and terrorist attack then.

Go deeper: Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and other tech giants pledge to crack down on violent extremism in ‘Christchurch call to action’

In addition, there were five companies — Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter — that announced that we were taking nine concrete steps to implement the kinds of principles and commitments that are in the Christchurch call.

I don’t think we’ve quite seen this kind of collective action with governments and tech companies coming together in this way. I think it was an important milestone and it’s a foundation for additional progress that will need to be made in the months ahead.

GeekWire: Some of the commitments seem like things that Microsoft and the other companies involved are already doing. Can you just briefly outline what’s new here?

Smith: Sure, if you look at the nine commitments, every one of these builds on work underway, but in each case takes it farther. The first one says we’re going to review and tighten our terms of service to better protect against the use of our services for these kinds of terrorists or extremist violent acts. Second, we’re tightening our human controls. We at Microsoft have already been taking steps to do that in the last month or two and we’ll continue on that. We’ll continue to strengthen our technology controls. One of the lessons from Christchurch is while companies have technology controls in place, they obviously were not sufficient across the industry to stop the uploading of this video. Fourth, you’re going to see a number of companies taking new steps to put better safeguards around the use of livestreaming. Facebook announced new safeguards last week. We at Microsoft are focusing on this as well.

And then finally, in an area of individual actions, we’ll start to publish transparency reports. We don’t have transparency reports that cover this topic. So this is new as well. In the collective action area, we don’t have a crisis protocol in place across the industry for these kinds of terrorist acts or extremist violent acts. We’ll develop that and put it in place.

Everybody recognizes that across the board, we’re going to need to make technology more powerful because one of the things that the Christchurch incident really showed was that in this case individuals, unfortunately, were identifying ways to get around existing controls. We’re going to need better technology to protect against that.

We really put a stake in the ground today and said that as an industry, we don’t want to make protection against terrorism a point of competition but rather an element of cooperation across the industry. We’re looking at things like open data sets and open development and open source software as advances that can better help companies large and small to address this problem. Then in the education and broader research areas, we obviously have problems that the industry hasn’t yet effectively solved. We clearly need more work and those steps will help us address that need.

GeekWire: Terrorist content is something pretty specific but extremism more broadly can be hard to define. I know companies such Twitter have struggled with this, for example. So how will this coalition of companies define extremism across the different organizations and take steps to stop it?

Smith: First of all, I think the question you ask is an important one and there’s two aspects to the answer. The first part is it’s not necessarily a focus on extremism in every form but rather extremist violent content or violent extremist content, as it’s more often said. What that really is is a focus on depictions of violence that are being perpetuated in order to advance extremist causes; at least that helps narrow it somewhat. It doesn’t eliminate the need to focus on the question that I think you’re rightly asking, but it does focus the amount of content or type of content one needs to address.

Second, I think what your question really points to is the fundamental importance of advancing this work with a full partnership with civil society and human rights and free expression groups. We have to be very careful so that we don’t go too far in stepping on legitimate free expression and we have to take care that we not unleash unintended consequences that could be used by authoritarian governments to really seek to stifle legitimate speech. This is a core problem that needs to be addressed overall, but it’s a problem that needs to be addressed with an important level of care.

GeekWire: It kind of seems like a moving target. Is it possible to stay ahead of this problem?

Smith: The world is moving. Most targets in the world are moving as a result. I think that it is possible for us to get ahead of the problem. I don’t think that we can get ahead and then assume that if we stopped doing anything further, we’ll stay ahead. Unfortunately, the nature of technology challenges like this is that the industry takes new steps or governments take new steps and then terrorists or criminals or other bad actors take new steps in response.

What this really reflects is that digital safety has become a much more important and broader issue for the industry. If you look at the last few years we’ve talked about privacy and security as being two paramount issues online. I think we’re now entering a phase where your privacy, security, and safety need to be regarded as three paramount issues that we’re going to need to continue to invest in and address on an ongoing basis.

GeekWire: Who initiated this partnership?

Smith: The first thing I would say is that it was really a collective and collaborative effort by a number of companies across the industry and everybody who came today, and especially the five companies that are taking these steps all deserve a lot of credit. I especially want to applaud a company like Amazon that could have stayed home and said, ‘Look, our services were not used to a significant degree. We don’t need to be part of the solution to this problem.’ The fact that Amazon has stepped forward is a big help to the rest of the industry and a real credit to Amazon itself.

The conversations to put together the Christchurch call started when I happened to be in Wellington, New Zealand about six weeks ago and had a meeting with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She was interested in exploring what might be done to prevent this kind of attack from being staged on the internet in the future. We talked about the Paris call for trust and security in cyberspace that was launched in Paris six months ago. That is similar in that it’s a multi-stakeholder initiative. We considered it a model we could build upon and indeed it became the model for what then became the Christchurch call.

GeekWire: It is interesting that Amazon stepped up because the topic that we’re talking about is a little bit tangential to their business. I’m curious why Apple wasn’t involved.

Smith: You’d have to ask Apple that. I’m not in a position to speak for them or applaud them.

GeekWire: How will the companies that are participating in the partnership hold themselves and each other accountable to these goals?

Smith: One of the things that we talked about today is what we do next, because in many ways, this is the last day of the first two months since the Christchurch attack. Those attacks took place two months ago today. But there was also a focus today on what could be accomplished over the next four months as well. There’s going to be an important meeting in Jordan in June. There’s going to be the G7 meeting in France in August. There’s going to be in the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September.

There was a discussion this morning at a roundtable with the companies that was organized by the Prime Minister of New Zealand and the King of Jordan to talk about what might come next. We talked about specific issues and I think we all recognize that we need to keep moving forward. We’re going to need to create an institutional structure to support all of these steps. We’re going to need to work through the concrete measures needed to have a crisis protocol that’s effective in practice. We’re going to need to work through government’s interests in how algorithms may impact the spread of extremism or terrorism online. There’s a real focus here and a broad recognition that more meetings are going to be needed. We’ll use those meetings to continue to ensure that we all remain accountable to following up and getting more done.

GeekWire: Is there anything else that you think we should know?

Smith: The other thing I would say is I do think that the Christchurch call is important and quite probably historic for the evolution of technology. The need for it is a reflection of the unfortunate way in which the internet, in effect, was weaponized by the terrorist who unleashed this massacre in Christchurch two months ago. What the Christchurch call represents is a new model for addressing these kinds of technology issues and challenges. It’s a model that we developed with the Paris call when we concluded that the problems of the 21st century really require that not only governments work together but that governments also work together with the tech sector and with groups across civil society.

So in effect, the next era of multilateral diplomacy is really multi-stakeholder diplomacy. That was the recipe for the Paris call. That was the recipe for the Christchurch call and one of the things we’re in effect building is a new capability that we can then use collaboratively around the world to address new concerns as they arise. It’s likely to be something that we’ll have to call on again just because of the ubiquitous impact of technology and the way it’s connected with so many issues around the world but that makes it all the more important that we develop these new types of capabilities.

GeekWire: Are there risks to big private tech companies engaging in diplomacy on this level?

Smith: At a certain level there’s risks and challenges with everything that one does in life and especially whenever one does something new. Whenever one tries to help solve a problem, there’s always certain risks that you’ll be held responsible if the problem’s not completely solved and these are problems that no one can solve completely.

We have to go into these challenges with our eyes wide open. But I think the biggest risk is doing nothing. If we do nothing to address these challenges, then they’re going to get worse. What we have to do is move forward, but I do think we have to be thoughtful. We have to develop new capabilities. We have to be smart about the work that we’re doing and frankly, we will probably need to recognize that there are very few good deeds that go completely unpunished. There will be days when even just being part of the solution creates some share of challenges in and of themselves, but that just is part of the territory that we have to address head on, in my view.

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