Meta, TikTok, Google, Amazon and Twitter sign ‘world first’ voluntary code, which critics say is a move designed to fend off regulation

Facebook, TikTok and Twitter logos on a phone
Facebook operator Meta, TikTok and Twitter have joined Amazon and Google signing a New Zealand code of practice for online safety. Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

Global social media companies including TikTok, Twitter and Meta have signed a “world first” code of conduct that commits them to reducing the spread of harmful content in New Zealand, but some user-advocacy groups fear the code lacks any real bite.

Facebook and Instagram operator Meta, Google, TikTok, Amazon and Twitter have voluntarily signed the code of practice for online safety and harms, requiring them to reduce harmful content on their platforms, introduce a robust public complaints system and provide yearly reports on safety standards.

The companies have agreed to reduce harmful content in seven key areas: child sexual exploitation and abuse, cyberbullying or harassment, hate speech, incitement of violence, violent or graphic content, misinformation and disinformation.

Netsafe, an independent online safety organisation responsible for developing the code, said it was unique because it would allow the public and stakeholders to hold the signatories to their commitments.

Its chief executive, Brent Carey, said the code built on other international codes of practice in the EU and Australia but was the “first of its kind”.

“Although voluntary, digital platforms who become signatories commit to being held accountable,” the code states.

The code is not intended to replace obligations to existing laws or other voluntary regulations, it said, and intends to be a “living document in that it is required to be regularly reviewed”.

Netsafe reported a 25% increase in harmful content online during the pandemic and noted that about one in five adults and two in five young people in New Zealand have been negatively affected by digital communication.

Speaking to Newsroom, Carey compared the code to the Christchurch Call – a set of voluntary commitments established by New Zealand and France to eliminate violent extremist content from the internet, after a far-right gunman massacred 51 people at two mosques in 2019 while broadcasting his rampage live on Facebook.

The code underwent consultation with the industry and the public, but advocacy groups, including Muslim community leaders, policy advisers Internet NZ, and anti-hate speech and disinformation group Tohatoha, have said companies are using the code as a method to skirt further regulation.

“In our view, this is a weak attempt to pre-empt regulation – in New Zealand and overseas – by promoting an industry-led model that avoids the real change and real accountability,” Tohatoha’s chief executive, Mandy Henk, told the NZ Herald.

“NetSafe, as the approved administrator for the Harmful Digital Communications Act, should not be involved in creating industry codes of practice. This code is a distraction from their core work of administering the act, which is crucially important.”