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Facebook : U.S. Extends Tepid Support for Accord to Curb Extremist Content Online

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05/15/2019 | 09:23pm EDT

By Sam Schechner

PARIS -- The White House parted with other governments as well as technology firms over the policing of the internet as it declined to endorse an international pledge to counter the spread of terrorist content online.

The Christchurch Call, an accord adopted by nine countries, was signed Wednesday in response to the attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 51 people dead. The three-page agreement sponsored by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron calls for measures to reduce the use of internet services to disseminate violent extremist content without undermining free expression online.

The White House on Wednesday said that while the administration agrees with the "overarching message" of the initiative, it isn't "currently in a position to join the endorsement."

Separately, the White House, in a tweet, asked Americans to share stories of suspected political bias through a "tech bias story sharing tool."

"Social media platforms should advance freedom of speech," according to the introduction of a form linked to by the White House tweet. "Yet too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear 'violations' of user policies."

The U.S. stance points to how ideological differences on the role of government and primacy of free expression are undercutting attempts to rein in extreme content on social-media sites, including even terrorist propaganda.

The accord incorporates commitments to act from governments and such tech giants as Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google, owner of YouTube. The promises include the creation of a crisis plan for sharing information in the event of a terrorist attack and the companies' taking steps to limit how live streaming can be used to spread violent extremism. Facebook's streaming feature was used to broadcast the Christchurch attack in March.

Canada, the U.K., Jordan and Indonesia were among the countries that endorsed the document, and French officials said seven others, including Germany, Japan and India, had indicated support for the initiative.

The U.S. has long held an expansive view of free expression and press freedom. On Wednesday, the White House said it has encouraged tech companies to do more to enforce their own rules banning the use of their platforms for terrorist purposes.

"We continue to be proactive in our efforts to counter terrorist content online while also continuing to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press," the U.S. statement said, adding: "We welcome the continued momentum provided by support for the Christchurch call."

Both Ms. Ardern and Mr. Macron on Wednesday said the qualified U.S. backing of their overall objectives marked a positive shift compared with a few years ago.

"That acknowledgment of support for the principles we're driving here with this call to action demonstrate that there is a real shared desire to eradicate terrorism and violent extremism online," Ms. Ardern said at a press conference with Mr. Macron.

Mr. Macron added: "It's already progress that the administration thought it was important to say during our meeting that they share our objectives and goals."

The practices of tech companies are under growing pressure on several fronts. The European Union recently passed a copyright directive that imposes new restrictions and obligations on big internet companies. Some politicians are calling for them to be broken up. And a number of countries, most recently France, have proposed tough new rules for how social-media firms police hate speech and cyberbullying on their platforms.

Curbing terrorist content -- including propaganda, recruitment videos and material depicting attacks -- has been less controversial because it is easier to draw a line around what should be removed. Facebook and Google both have automated tools to detect Islamic State content, for instance.

Nevertheless, within the EU, the G-7 and other international venues, tech companies are being pressed to speed up removal of such content.

Wednesday's pledge also commits tech companies to tackle the thorny problem of whether their algorithms share blame for spreading extremist content. Researchers say social-media sites -- which are built to keep people clicking on posts -- can end up automatically recommending polarizing postings. Companies pledged to "review the operation of algorithms that may drive users toward and/or amplify terrorist and violent extremist content."

Mr. Macron said governments would monitor companies' progress on the issue.

Live video has been a focus of concern because of the Christchurch attack and other recent incidents in which disturbing or extremist content was broadcast as events unfolded. Tech companies say it is more difficult for them to detect what is going on in live streams, as opposed to still images or previously recorded video.

Ahead of the publication of the Christchurch Call, Facebook announced plans to impose a "one-strike" rule for its streaming feature. People who have violated certain Facebook rules, including its policy against terrorist and hate groups, would be suspended from using the company's live-video streaming feature to broadcast to anyone else on Facebook after their first offense.

Facebook's move follows that of YouTube to restrict its live-streaming feature to users who have more than 1,000 subscribers.

Some critics said Facebook's new policy isn't sufficient to prevent bad actors from live streaming violence on its platform, while others said the rule gave the company too much power over personal expression on the site.

"The strong feeling in New Zealand is 'This is not good enough,' " said Alistair Knott, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Otago. "Even if you've been bad and you're on some list, you can just get another Facebook account. It's the easiest thing in the world."

Mr. Knott said a requirement that Facebook users apply for a license to post live video would be more effective at screening out those interested in broadcasting violence. On Wednesday, Ms. Ardern described Facebook's change as "a first step as we look forward to further work."

Article 19, a U.K.-based human rights group that focuses on free expression, said live video can also be used to document human rights abuses, warning that governments could use the terms terrorism and violent extremism to silence political opponents.

"We urge governments to listen to civil society's concerns before handing further control of freedom of expression to private companies," Thomas Hughes, the group's executive director said Wednesday.

-- Jon Emont in Hong Kong and Maria Armental in New York contributed to this article.

Write to Sam Schechner at sam.schechner@wsj.com

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