Microsoft-backed counter terrorism group spins out as independent organization

Microsoft President Brad Smith. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

It’s been six months since a gunman opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and live-streamed the attack on Facebook, ushering in a new age of technology-enabled terrorism. Although Facebook and other technology platforms took the video down, footage of the attacker firing an assault rifle on dozens of victims was re-uploaded millions of times.

Microsoft President Brad Smith believes that new measures announced Monday would have stopped the video from spreading much earlier.

“It would have and should have made it possible to respond to the live-streaming much more quickly,” Smith said in an interview with GeekWire. “In addition, it would have enabled the tech sector to move in a unified way much more rapidly to stop different variants of this video from being uploaded on different social media platforms.”

Smith, along with French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, announced new steps to prevent violent extremism from spreading online at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Monday. Most significantly, a two-year-old initiative called the Global Internet Forum — founded by Microsoft, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to create a shared database of terrorist content and machine learning tools to identify violent images — will be spun out as an independent organization.

QA: Microsoft President Brad Smith on ‘historic’ international partnership to curb online extremism

The organization will continue to implement the crisis protocol established by the Christchurch Call to Action, an initiative launched by tech companies and government leaders in May. The newly independent Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism will also sponsor research on technology-aided terrorism. Its mission is to “prevent terrorists and violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms.” LinkedIn, Mega, and WhatsApp plan to join the group.

“It prepares for a potential crisis by ensuring that there’s a network of people not only in the sector but in governments and elsewhere who are on point, on-call and have the ability to be activated at a moment’s notice if there’s a crisis,” he said.

Thirty new countries signed onto the Christchurch Call to Action, Smith announced Monday. The new signatories include small- and medium-sized countries across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe. The United States is noticeably absent from the list.

“The U.S. has always had particular First Amendment and traditional media concerns that are, in part, at issue in this kind of setting,” Smith said.

However, the U.S. will sit on an advisory committee to the counter-terrorism organization along with the United Kingdom, France, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and others.

Since launching in 2017, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism has created a protocol for tech companies and governments to deal with terrorist attacks broadcast on social media. The crisis response program includes tagging videos with a unique digital fingerprint to find them when they are downloaded and re-uploaded, an issue that occurred thousands of times after technology companies deleted the original video of the Christchurch attack.

“Speed matters in this setting … if you have a root that can grow a thousand branches it’s much more difficult than if you can get at the root when it’s only sprouting a couple,” Smith said.

But the new protocol is not a silver bullet. As NBC News discovered, social media companies are still struggling to stamp out all footage of the Christchurch attack six months later.

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