PARIS — The Trump administration said on Wednesday that it would not sign an international accord intended to pressure the largest internet platforms to eradicate violent and extremist content, highlighting a broader divide between the United States and other countries over government’s role in determining what content is acceptable online.
Citing free speech protections, the administration said in a statement that “the United States is not currently in a position to join the endorsement.” It added that “the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech.”
The statement coincided with President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand meeting in Paris to sign what they have labeled the Christchurch Call. The agreement was crafted after a terrorist attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March that left 51 Muslim worshipers dead. The massacre was live streamed on Facebook, and spread virally over the internet.
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Ms. Ardern has used the Christchurch killings to rally support for increased vigilance toward keeping violent and extremist content off the world’s largest internet platforms. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft and Amazon have vowed to monitor their services more aggressively for material that encourages and facilitates violence.
Yet the debate about regulating the internet is raising broader questions about what constitutes acceptable free expression online. Companies and governments have largely coalesced around addressing violent, terrorist-related and child-exploitation content online, but there is less consensus on issues like what qualifies as hate speech and misinformation, and what forms of political rhetoric are tolerable even if they are offensive and polarizing.
The Christchurch Call is not binding and does not include penalties for platforms that do not comply. But as governments around the world consider new laws and regulations, tech companies are under growing pressure to demonstrate that they can police their platforms. On Tuesday, before the gathering in Paris, Facebook said it would place more restrictions on the use of its live video service
Last week, France proposed new laws that would require companies to eliminate harmful content. Britain put forward a similar proposal last month. And after the Christchurch massacre, Australia passed a law that made company executives personally liable for the spread of violent material.
“That the U.S. is a no-show to such an important meeting indicates a shocking lack of concern about the tremendous harms perpetuated by the internet, including terrorism and killing,” said Mr. Ghosh, who is now co-director of the Platform Accountability Project at Harvard University. “Further, our lack of participation will reinforce the intellectual divide between Americans and the rest of the world.”
He said the agreement was symbolically significant and put tech companies on notice that they must meet new safety obligations.
“If companies participate in the accord, they are necessarily representing to consumers that they will live up to its demands, and they will be compelled by governmental agencies to live up to those commitments,” he said.
In a joint statement, the companies called the Christchurch shootings a “horrifying tragedy” and said “it is right that we come together.”
Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said in an interview that the companies’ plan was part of the tech industry’s broader shift away from self-regulation.
“Now you see a clear reaction and, in some cases, rejection of that,” Mr. Smith said in an interview.
Mr. Macron and Ms. Ardern said the Christchurch Call was the start of a wider effort to address the use of the internet to spread violent and extreme ideologies. The push is to continue at a meeting of Group of 7 leaders later this year and a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in September.
“We have taken steps to act,” Mr. Macron said.
Ms. Ardern said, “The social media dimension to the attack was unprecedented and our response today with the adoption of the Christchurch Call is equally unprecedented.”
At a news conference at the French presidential palace, the two leaders played down the Trump administration’s position. Ms. Ardern noted that American officials had expressed support for the pledge’s broad goals.
In its statement on the subject, the Trump administration said it supported the Christchurch Call’s “overall goals” and would “continue to engage governments, industry, and civil society to counter terrorist content on the internet.”
Mr. Macron, acknowledging the differing views on free speech, argued that stricter policies were needed to stop the spread of not just explicitly violent content, but also anti-Semitic and other types of hate speech, bullying and racist material, which he said could incite extremist behavior. There have not been clear definitions about what is acceptable in those areas.
“That’s the gray zone,” Mr. Macron said.
Both leaders praised the tech companies for vowing to make changes. “We have an agreement here that involves both tech companies and countries,” said Ms. Ardern. “In the past we have had either one or the other.”