Protecting human rights in the context of crisis response

I was invited to address an Incident Response Workshop today organised by YouTube and the other GIFCT members. Here is what I had to say.

Kia ora tatou!

I’d like to start with a moment’s silence in memory of the 51 people who died in the Christchurch terror attacks.

I’m Dave Moskovitz, and I come here today in three roles, as a member of the Technical Community, a government contractor, and also representing Civil Society.

I’m a software developer by trade, and work in governance roles in a number of technology companies, mainly startups, but I’m also on the InternetNZ Council. I am a technologist. I am a government contractor, on number of government initiatives related to technology, most recently the Digital Service Design Standard which aims to make government digital services more citizen centric. So I have a foot in the government camp too. But my main role here today is as the Jewish Co-Chair of the Wellington Abrahamic Council of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. All three of our religious communities have been affected by terrorist violence which was greatly amplified by online platforms in 2019. Here in Aotearoa, the 15 March terrorist attacks on the mosques in Christchurch will be viewed in future as the dark day which transformed the nation.

Our three religious groups have always enjoyed excellent relations here in Wellington, and the terrible events of the last year have brought us even closer – much closer. So I’m mainly here representing Civil Society.

My main message today is that Civil Society – the collection of our diverse communities – needs to be an equal participant, contributor, and collaborator in any efforts to protect human rights, in the context of crisis response, as well as any other context.

In other words, nothing about us without us.

As members of civil society, distinct from Government or the business community, we are the ones at the sharp end of policy, business practices, as well as online hate.

We are diverse. We do not have a single voice. We are spread out. We are often at the vulnerable end of power asymmetry. I wish engagement were easier, but it isn’t – and we all have to live with that. But we are the beautiful, rich tapestry that makes up humanity. Government, we are your voters. Business, we are your customers. We three are inextricably interconnected.

So I’m naturally concerned when I look around this room, and see so few indigenous faces. Where are our Māori, our Aboriginal People, and with so many American companies here today, where are our Native Americans? Here in Aotearoa, we have the Treaty of Waitangi to uphold, and looking around the room, our treaty partners seem to be largely absent. That’s a concern, because locally, as awful as antisemitism and islamophobia are, racism and online hate directed at Māori is a problem that’s as significant. Indigenous voices are a critical part of this conversation.

I haven’t seen a copy of the protocols we’ll be working through in the exercise over the next two days but I would like to know to what extent have the affected communities been involved in their formulation? How many of the people involved with design of the incident response come from the affected communities? Nothing about us without us.

Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers”. I’m worried that we’re in that situation now. This meeting is essentially asking how to balance freedom of expression against safety. The question we should be asking is, “how can the platforms that comprise GIFCT protect human rights, even at the expense of their corporate profits?”

As an example, in May this year amid some fanfare, Facebook pledged USD 7.5m towards new research partnerships to automatically detect offending content. That’s a great start, but 7.5m is less than a drop in the bucket compared to Facebook’s market capitalisation of 575B. It’s 0.0013 percent, an order of magnitude less than homeopathic dilutions. In other words, if Facebook were worth only $1m, this new research pledge would be worth $13. That’s a pathetically small commitment to understand corporate practices that are actually responsible for people dying. How many people from the affected communities were involved in setting the level of funding for this research? Nothing about us without us.

I’m also worried that much of the research posted on the GIFCT web site concerns terrorism by Islamists, when the reason we’re here today – Christchurch – places Muslims clearly as victims rather than perpetrators. That’s deeply wrong.

In order to regain the trust of Civil Society, the platforms must start paying much more to support peer-reviewed research into the societal effects of the behaviour of platforms, with significant involvement from the communities that experience the most harm. If we’re going to talk about how to protect human rights, let’s do so informed by robust, well funded, community led scientific research.

We need to recognise that the platforms are publishers, not posties, and should be held to the same level of accountability and liability as content publishers in other media. I’ve written a detailed blog post about this – look it up at The bottom line is that if you’re choosing which content I see and in what order, and monetising it by showing ads based on that content, you’re not a simple carrier – you’re a publisher, and should be held accountable for your decisions whether they were made by humans or algorithms, perhaps through a vehicle similar to the Broadcast Standards Authority.

In any other context, companies that produce products that are addictive, manipulate perception, and have been shown to injure and kill people would be subject to significant regulation. To the government folk in the room today, it’s time to treat the platforms the same way we treat other potentially harmful industries like tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, and pharmaceuticals. They can start by paying tax.

So in addition to supporting more research, the platforms should also be supporting greater civil society participation in preventing and mitigating harm in their communities. The GIFCT, where civil society has been relegated to an advisory committee with no real power, is not good enough. Civil society needs to play a central role. Nothing about us without us.

My organisation, the Abrahamic Council has a budget of roughly NZD 1500 per year which is mainly spent on events and affiliation fees. I’m lucky to be here because this event is taking place in the city in which I live, they wouldn’t even be able to afford to send me to Palmerston North, much less overseas. Most grassroots civil society organisations are the same – we’re just don’t have the resources to have a seat at the table at meetings like this one.

It’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to require much more than homeopathic levels of expenditure. But it needs to be done.

But back to today’s exercise, and the question of protecting human rights, I would ask that during the exercise, please consult people from the affected communities to explore what they believe is the right way to respond. Use this as a significant input into your decision making. If you don’t have strong networks in the affected communities, then there is no better time to start building them than now.

I can give you my Jewish and Abrahamic perspectives, but you’ll need to listen much more widely.

Nothing about us without us.

Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā kotou katoa.

Thank you.