New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave a speech last Friday announcing an initiative to "help improve research and understanding of how a person’s online experiences are curated by automated processes." In her speech, Ardern compared free speech to"weapons of war."
She argued that the initiative would which will be done in government partnership with non-profit organizations and corporations, would be "important in understanding more about mis- and disinformation online."
Ardern acknowledged that her calls to regulate free speech would raise the ire of many:
As leaders, we are rightly concerned that even the most light-touch approaches to disinformation could be misinterpreted as being hostile to the values of free speech that we value so highly.
But while I cannot tell you today what the answer is to this challenge, I can say with complete certainty that we cannot ignore it. To do so poses an equal threat to the norms we all value.
Ardern queried her audience on how they would tackle the challenges they, as leaders, face if people are allowed to share their dissenting opinions on the internet.
"After all, how do you successfully end a war if people are led to believe the reason for its existence is not only legal but noble? How do you tackle climate change if people do not believe it exists?" she asked. "How do you ensure the human rights of others are upheld, when they are subjected to hateful and dangerous rhetoric and ideology?"
The New Zealander stated that free speech was being weaponized by enemies of the state to "collapse the collective strength of countries who work together."
"The weapons may be different but the goals of those who perpetrate them is often the same. To cause chaos and reduce the ability of others to defend themselves. To disband communities. To collapse the collective strength of countries who work together," she said.
"But we have an opportunity here to ensure that these particular weapons of war do not become an established part of warfare. In these times, I am acutely aware of how easy it is to feel disheartened. We are facing many battles on many fronts," she said, suggesting that United Nations members take a pro-active stance.
"But there is cause for optimism. Because for every new weapon we face, there is a new tool to overcome it. For every attempt to push the world into chaos, is a collective conviction to bring us back to order. We have the means; we just need the collective will."
Ardern's remarks prompted widespread backlash on Twitter after they surfaced on Wednesday.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald described Ardern as the "face of authoritarianism," suggesting that her proposal exposed "the mindset of tyrants everywhere."
"This is someone so inebriated by her sense of righteousness and superiority that she views dissent as an evil too dangerous to allow," he wrote.
Ardern has previously called for mass censorship on the internet. In the aftermath of the Christchurch terrorist attack, Ardern launched the Christchurch Call to Action, which called on social media platforms to restrict extreme speech on the internet, which she blamed for the attack.