A filtered Internet is not the Internet we need
The past two years have shown how deeply integrated the Internet is with New Zealand society, and with the challenges we need to face together. A world where people go online as part of our daily lives is one where the Internet can have big impacts for good and for bad. During the last year, we have seen how access to the Internet can keep us connected to our friends, families and communities, as we stayed home in a shared effort to control community spread of COVID-19. But two years ago, we saw that same access weaponised to attack our people and communities in the March 2019 terrorist attacks on mosques.
Our goal is to help shape an Internet that benefits the people of New Zealand. Over time, part of our role is to share our views on how we build the Internet we need together. But for now, we have a pressing need to identify some bad answers that describe Internet futures which New Zealand must not accept.
One bad future we cannot accept is a lawless Internet, which enables bad behaviour that harms our people and communities without consequences. These problems do need solutions.
But a future that might be even worse is an Internet filtered by law, with government officials deciding which links break and which links work -- at least for those of us who don't know how, or cannot be bothered, to install free VPN software.
Filtering laws are a pseudo-solution to real social problems
Right now, the government is putting forward rules for a filtered Internet under New Zealand law. Changes to the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act being considered by Parliament would enable officials to mandate filtering by all New Zealand Internet service providers. The proposals are set out in a Government Bill which is currently at Select Committee and open for submissions until April 1.
We support the goals of the Bill, which aims to reduce the harm from situations like the Christchurch mosque attacks. But though harms from extremist behaviour are a real problem, the proposal for Internet filtering is a pseudo-solution at best, and downright dangerous at worst.
Filtering at the ISP level is a mile wide and an inch deep. People who want to get around a filter can do so by doing a web search to find a free VPN tool. Everyone else will suffer from false positives and, potentially, performance impacts on their connections. Meanwhile, filters will not work on the main chat or social media apps people use most, and shifts to more secure protocols at all levels will run ahead of the reach of filters. In short, whatever you think of these trends on the broader Internet, government filtering technology cannot keep up with them.
As bad as these technical problems are, the social and legal problems are worse. The powers in the Bill do not require any safeguards or oversight for filtering. Regulations do require consultation (something InternetNZ pushed for), but the proposed legal powers would allow filtering rules to override considerations of false positives or performance impacts, or ignore them entirely.
We know that a range of community groups besides InternetNZ are deeply concerned that proposals for Internet filtering do not even consider a need for robust, transparent, and diverse community oversight to uphold democratic rights and protect minority groups.
We join our voice with others who oppose the Bill's approach to filtering. As Anjum Rahman of the Islamic Women's Council says, laws with such great potential for abuse need to pass the "Trump test". The filtering rules in this Bill fail it, and offer a future vision of the Internet which we must not accept.
Other aspects of this Bill are much more sensible, and it is a shame they are tied up with the proposal for Internet filtering.
We can get behind urgent classification decisions if this will help the Censor, and a new offence for people who deliberately livestream objectionable material. We welcome proposals for binding take down requests of objectionable material, and think with improvements this could be a useful step to signal New Zealand norms and reduce the harms from sharing of extreme materials online.
InternetNZ will be submitting to share our views on filtering and other aspects of the Bill. We are also engaging with others in the community, and working to help a range of other people understand the issues and make their own submissions. We welcome you to:
- Read our briefing on the Bill
- Read our guide for first-time submitters
- Make your own submission through the Parliament website
If you are a member of InternetNZ you will also have received an invite to a member's discussion later in March. We look forward to talking about this issue with you there.
If you want to learn more about the issue, or join our members' conversation on this and other issues, join InternetNZ here.
Jordan Carter is the CEO of InternetNZ. Cross posted with kind permission.
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