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White House says it won't sign international agreement to combat online extremism

The White House said it supports the goals of the call to action in the name of Christchurch, but would not sign on because of freedom of speech concerns.
French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attend a launching ceremony for the 'Christchurch call', an initiative pushed by Ardern after a self-described white supremacist gunned down 51 people in a massacre at two mosques in the New Zealand city in March, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on May 15, 2019.Charles Platiau / AFP - Getty Images

The United States says it supports an international effort to find ways to stop social media from spreading hate — but won't take part in it.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the White House praised the call to action in the name of Christchurch being spearheaded by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron.

"The United States stands with the international community in condemning terrorist and violent extremist content online in the strongest terms," the White House said, but added that it is "not currently in a position to join the endorsement."

That makes the U.S. an outlier. Allies including the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Italy, India, Germany and Spain are all listed as signing on to the effort. Numerous technology giants are involved as well, including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube.

In its statement, the White House suggested that First Amendment concerns were stopping the Trump administration from joining in the agreement.

"We continue to be proactive in our efforts to counter terrorist content online while also continuing to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press," the statement said. The White House later tweeted that the administration is "fighting for free speech online," and urged people who feel they've been censored because of "political bias" to share their stories on the White House's website.

In an op-ed in The New York Times this past weekend, Ardern said the "Christchurch Call" would be a voluntary framework that "commits signatories to counter the drivers of terrorism and put in place specific measures to prevent the uploading of terrorist content."

It's named after the New Zealand city where a white supremacist attacked two mosques in a shooting spree that left 51 people dead. Parts of the March 15 attacks were livestreamed on Facebook.

The attacker's digital footprint along with his own claims about how the internet shaped his views led to renewed calls for social media platforms to do more to combat hate speech as well as foreign governments that said they were prepared to take matters into their own hands.

Ahead of the meeting with world leaders and other tech companies in Paris for a "Tech for Good" summit Wednesday, Facebook announced that it would be implementing new rules around the company's livestream tool in an effort to limit its use to "cause harm or spread hate."

In a rare joint statement, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon and Microsoft said: "The terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March were a horrifying tragedy. And so it is right that we come together, resolute in our commitment to ensure we are doing all we can to fight the hatred and extremism that lead to terrorist violence."

The companies said "we are sharing concrete steps we will take that address the abuse of technology to spread terrorist content, including continued investment in technology that improves our capability to detect and remove this content from our services, updates to our individual terms of use, and more transparency for content policies and removals."

President Donald Trump has complained repeatedly that Facebook and Twitter are silencing conservatives. Earlier this month, Facebook banned a number of far right media personalities, including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, from both Facebook and Instagram for hate speech. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was banned as well.

"I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms. This is the United States of America — and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH! We are monitoring and watching, closely!!" Trump tweeted after the Facebook move.