Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is being urged to lead global action to stop internet giants feeding people extremist content in a commercial drive to grab viewers' attention.

A report, funded by the NZ Law Foundation and a charity started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, proposes international action to monitor the computer programs used by giants such as Facebook and YouTube to feed people extremist content.

Lead author Marianne Elliott, a Wellington social activist and former United Nations human rights lawyer, says the "Christchurch Call" summit which Ardern will co-chair in Paris next week should not focus only on banning violent content such as the live-streaming of the Christchurch mosque attacks.

"It is critical that this moment of global co-operation is used to address the wider, structural drivers of the biggest threats posed to democracy by digital media," she said.


In all the debate about how to regulate the tech giants, she said, "none imagined a Prime Minister with a global reputation for compassion, armed with moral courage, clarity and the support of an outraged nation".

"Has Jacinda Ardern become the global leader capable of taming the tech giants? There are good reasons to hope so, and even more reasons to ensure that this rare opportunity is neither wasted nor lost."

Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron have invited world leaders and the heads of the biggest global tech companies to the Paris summit to "attempt to bring to an end the ability to use social media to organise and promote terrorism and violent extremism".

President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will co-chair next week's Paris summit. Photo / File
President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will co-chair next week's Paris summit. Photo / File

But Elliott, who has consulted widely over the past year on the wider issues raised by the power of the social media giants, said the three wider issues for democracy were:

Monopoly power: "Two or three corporations control not only our means of communication, but also the content which is distributed, both of which are core aspects of our democracy."

Secret algorithms: "Algorithmic engines are using huge quantities of personal data to make ever more precise predictions about what we want to see and hear."

Sensationalism: "The dominant business model of digital media prioritises the amplification of whatever content is best at grabbing our attention."

"While better content moderation is clearly one of the responses we must demand of the platforms, it is not even close to being a sufficient response," she said.

Marianne Elliott says the Paris summit should look at wider issues of how the global internet giants are affecting our democracy. Photo / File
Marianne Elliott says the Paris summit should look at wider issues of how the global internet giants are affecting our democracy. Photo / File

New Zealand can do little to break up the monopoly power of companies based in the United States, although Elliott noted that Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren proposed to "break up the tech giants".

But she said NZ regulators should be tougher on enforcing electoral laws requiring election advertisers to disclose their funders.

She said the algorithms used to feed content to viewers were commercial secrets, but should be monitored.

"The sort of thing that has been talked about is an honest broker. It could be domestic or a multi-state agency," she said.

"For example, the dial on this algorithm might be turned up too high, producing increased polarisation. People need to be given more opportunities to see content that they are not already likely to agree with."

She said governments should also fund "public interest media" through mechanisms such as NZ On Air, which provides competitive funding for radio, TV and now web-based news organisations.

"One of the most significant impacts on democracy is the way that these digital media have undermined the funding model for public interest media. They can offer advertising based on gathering data under false pretences," she said.

"They need to be held to the same privacy standards as everyone else, and there is also genuinely a need for more public investment, and I would hope that public investment would be across platforms, not just in a public broadcaster."

A Facebook spokesman said Facebook looked forward to working with world leaders and industry to develop "a clear framework of rules".

Mark Zuckerberg, who has called for
Mark Zuckerberg, who has called for "new rules for the internet", has been invited to next week's "Christchurch Call" summit in Paris. Photo / File

"As Mark Zuckerberg said recently, new regulations are needed so that we have a standardised approach across the internet and private companies aren't making important decisions alone," he said.

A spokesman for Ardern said the Paris summit would be "narrowly focused on terrorism and violent extremism in social media".

"The reason for that is that that is where we are most likely to be able to achieve meaningful change," the spokesman said.

"It is most directly relevant to the events that occurred in Christchurch.

"As to the wider range of issues that this research highlights, there is clearly ongoing work that all countries need to undertake in order to ensure that challenges to democracy and other threats from the rise of social media are addressed, but we see that as a separate piece of work."

Internet NZ policy director Ellen Strickland said Ardern had invited "a range of global civil society voices" to a meeting in Paris, which Internet NZ chief executive Jordan Carter will help facilitate, the day before the May 15 summit.

Internet NZ will also host a meeting for NZ civil society groups including Elliott in Wellington this Friday and has set up an online forum open to anyone wanting to feed into the Paris discussions.