New Zealand attack prompts Microsoft to call for united action from tech companies

In the wake of the mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this month, Microsoft President Brad Smith has penned a blog post calling on tech companies to form a united front in moderating content stemming from similar tragedies.

"Ultimately, we need to develop an industrywide approach that will be principled, comprehensive and effective," Smith said. "The best way to pursue this is to take new and concrete steps quickly in ways that build upon what already exists."

Ultimately, Smith says tech companies should work together in three major areas: prevention, effective responses in moments of crisis, and fostering a healthier online environment.

Smith suggests tech companies can unite in creating tools to "stop perpetrators from posting and sharing acts of violence against innocent people." Beyond tools used to identify violent content shared across social media, Smith also suggests browser-based solutions akin to "safe search," that would automatically block access to said content. This is a particularly important step following the Christchurch attack, as video from the attack was posted more than 1.5 million times on Facebook alone.

Further, Smith proposes a "joint virtual command center" from which tech companies can work together during a major incident to respond more effectively to crises. That's in addition to working together to create a healthier online environment. "There are too many days when online commentary brings out the worst in people," Smith says. "While there's obviously a big leap from hateful speech to an armed attack, it doesn't help when online interaction normalizes in cyberspace standards of behavior that almost all of us would consider unacceptable in the real world."

As Smith notes, there's precedent for such cooperation within the tech sector. Two years ago, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft created a group committed to countering terrorism. From Smith:

Among other things, the group's members have created a shared hash database of terrorist content and developed photo and video matching and text-based machine learning techniques to identify and thwart the spread of violence on their platforms. These technologies were used more than a million times in 24 hours to stop the distribution of the video from Christchurch.

While competition between the tech giants is "indispensable to a vibrant technology sector," Smith argues, there is a need for cooperation when certain circumstances present themselves.

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