NZ Super Fund: Investor responses to BigTech

Ahead of her speech at RI New York, Katie Beith of New Zealand Super Fund writes on the need for engagement with BigTech

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Katie Beith, Senior Investment Strategist, Responsible Investment, NZ Super Fund is speaking at the RI New York conference on December 4-5 on a plenary titled: “Investors and tech giants: creating accountable and sustainable growth models.”

The internet, and by extension social media, has enhanced communication and the free flow of ideas, providing a hugely beneficial tool for billions of people around the world. However, not all content is beneficial and some can be outright harmful. 

No clearer example of the harm that can be done exists than the Christchurch mosque shootings, which killed 51 worshippers in March this year. That horrible event was recorded, live-streamed and circulated online; weaponising digital technology and highlighting the inadequacy of content governance on social media platforms. 

As New Zealand’s sovereign wealth fund, with investments in the companies that run these platforms, we found this deeply concerning. Online dissemination of the video exacerbated the harm caused, breached a duty of care to society and jeopardised the respective companies social licence to operate. 

"As investors, we want to see these companies innovate, grow, and succeed. We are seeking to safeguard their long-term viability as companies and as investments, not to inhibit further development of communication platforms."

In response, together with the other government-owned investors from New Zealand, we initiated an engagement and invited other financial institutions across the world to join us. 

The collaboration has a sole objective: to persuade the world’s three leading social media companies (Facebook, Alphabet/YouTube and Twitter) to strengthen controls to prevent the live streaming and distribution of objectionable content. 

As it stands, the group consists of 95 institutions from around the world, representing assets under management of more than $8trn.

The moral and business imperative for investors to act

Our response is based on both a moral cause and a business imperative.

However, modern communication channels need safeguards. We note any action taken must be consistent with human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, and respect the principles of a free, open and secure internet. We have kept the objective of our engagement deliberately narrow, focusing on egregious content where there can be no argument that its transmission has crossed all lines.

"We believe ultimate responsibility for managing the issue sits with boards and that the risk is managed in proportion to the scale of the problem"

The responsibility for managing content sits with the board

We believe ultimate responsibility for managing the issue sits with boards and that the risk is managed in proportion to the scale of the problem. We’re challenging the companies on how to rebuild trust, invest appropriately, collaborate across the industry, and be proactive and transparent in their actions. Most importantly, we’re asking the companies to put measures in place to prevent the widespread dissemination of atrocities before they are needed.

The engagement is underway. We have carried out research with the help of third party experts, and we are meeting with the companies. All three have made improvements since the Christchurch mosque shootings, but there is additional work, collaboration, governance and transparency that is needed. 

We’re committed to seeing our objective realised. We’ll continue to engage until we’re satisfied with the measures put in place, and that the companies’ efforts run deep into the heart of their respective business strategies. 

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