Creating a safer digital world

President and Chief Legal Officer of the technology giant Microsoft, Brad Smith, recently visited Wellington where he spoke at an event at Parliament that touched on privacy, terrorism, and the increasing importance of the relationship between governments and the technology sector.

Hands typing on a keyboard.

The event was supported by the Faculty of Law and a number of Faculty staff, students, and alumni had the opportunity to attend.

In the wake of the 15 March Christchurch terrorist attacks, where internet and technology companies struggled to keep up with millions of attempts to share a Facebook livestream of the horrific events, Smith said that the technology sector needed to take urgent action to prevent something similar happening again.

“It’s a moment in time that really calls on us to think about what we need to do when it comes to technology. It’s in some ways a frustrating moment because it feels like the tech sector has been a little too slow. I think the tech sector, simply put, needs to do more,” he told the audience.

“It’s not just a question for those tech companies that might be considered part of the problem—it’s actually a question for every tech company, because even if you’re not part of the problem, you have an opportunity, and I would argue a responsibility, to be part of the solution.”

Smith stressed that not only does the sector need to do more on its own, but that it also needs to work more collaboratively with governments and non-governmental organisations. “We need to recognise that the law, regulation, and governments have an increasing role to play,” he said.

He outlined several areas where tech companies could focus on improvement: “One is how we prevent these kinds of abuses of technology to stop the sharing of these kinds of terrorist videos, and how we change human processes—and what we expect tech companies to do.”

To highlight his point, Smith quoted something that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had recently said on this topic: “Gone are the days when tech companies could think of their platforms as simply akin to the postal service, where all they did was deliver the mail.”

He said there’s also a need to strengthen the way tech companies collaborate in response to these kinds of crises.

“Certainly we’ve seen tech companies, including Microsoft, working with other companies like Facebook to respond to cybersecurity attacks. We can take some of what we’ve learned and create new protocols that can and should be applied in these instances to react instantaneously, the way the world needs us to act.”

A third aspect Smith noted was the increasingly toxic tone of online interactions.

“We need to recognise and acknowledge that to some degree, digital discourse has become far too toxic. Of course, there’s a huge leap between hateful speech and an armed attack, but to some degree we’ve seen in recent years… the creation of a legitimacy for conduct online that none of us would tolerate in person.

“We would stop it if it were happening in our office, we would scold our children if they said the things people say routinely online. And this toxicity is not making the problem easier to address.

“It’s a multifaceted challenge, and we need to take it seriously. We need to do more if we are going to turn it from a learning moment to a moment of action.”

Smith’s talk expanded on a Microsoft blog post he had recently authored on the same topic.