Against The Great Kiwi Firewall – Why I’m Concerned About Internal Affairs Proposal To Filter “Objectionable” Internet

16
818

A few days ago, Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin introduced a Bill into Parliament that would give our Government the power to block off portions of the internet. The official reasoning is to make it harder for Kiwis to come into contact with – or, for that matter, to share – “objectionable content” like the Christchurch Mosque massacre videos.

And while I absolutely do not have a problem with that stated object … I’m a little concerned about the mechanism being used to go about it. Particularly the lack of independent oversight.

Why? Well, let me tell you two (brief) stories. For you see, I’ve been down this road before …

A little under two years ago, I wrote an article. It was on India’s geopolitical position/predicament in relation to Iran, Russia, and the United States. I thought it was pretty good, so I sent the link to a friend who was travelling abroad in the United Kingdom.

He couldn’t read it. Why? Because in the UK, they have a porn-filter. And when he attempted to access my work … he got a message saying it’d been blocked by order of Her Majesty’s Government etcetera etcetera.

Now, it is well-known that I have a strong love for India … but I don’t think it’s in quite the way that would usually trigger a porn-filter.

Rather, what the trouble was, appeared to be a combination of what I’d written, and the site that it appeared upon. Which is a fine international media outlet, but due to its critical stances on a fair swathe of American & NATO policy while occasionally saying not-unkind things about Bernie Sanders … would probably be accused of attempting to hack US democracy for Putin or something. You get the idea.

So, to back the proverbial truck up – we had inadvertently stumbled across a situation wherein a pornography filter put in place to protect ordinary Britons from deplorable, objectionable content – had evidently ‘decided’ that journalism from a set of perspectives the Government of the day didn’t like … was deplorable, objectionable content – that you shouldn’t be allowed to read in Britain.

TDB Recommends NewzEngine.com

Gosh, almost sounds like a compliment when you put it that way, doesn’t it. Recalls the ancient journalistic maxim that “Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising; whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news.”

Except this is dangerous. Either because some computer algorithm somewhere has the power to autonomously decide to blot a news site from the UK’s internet … or because somebody deliberately told said algorithm to do so, because they weren’t keen for people in the UK to come into contact with our views and perspective.

I’m almost not sure which is worse. That a computer program is this breathtakingly bad at deciding what objectionable pornography is that it blocks a news site (in which case, what does it say about the sort of people who chose blithely to trust in such a mechanism); or that somebody might have gone out of their way to censor media by having it declared (illegal) pornography.

Now I mention this, because Internal Affairs Minister Martin is on-record as being quite keen on the UK’s model of porn-prevention. Which, as we can see, is also a pretty handy tool for a Government to prevent access to rather more than just porn – and nobody notices.

Martin has been pushing this “particular drive of [hers]” for some years now; and while on paper there is a theoretical distinction between the regulation of internet pornography, and the blockading of other “harmful and illegal content” – in practice, the mechanisms, as well as the motivation are functionally much the same thing. And, as we have just demonstrated via reference to my article on India’s geopolitical predicament – this overlap is vulnerable to all sorts of pernicious (mis)use. Indeed, some might suggest that such a potentiality is less a ‘bug’ than it is a ‘feature’.

Who can say. In the absence of serious oversight (which this Bill currently lacks), it’s open to both interpretation – and to abuse.

And those are far from the only reasons I feel a bit concerned about where we’re going with this legislative proposal.

A few years ago now, I penned a perhaps somewhat controversial article. About New Zealand politics this time, it attempted to chart the course of an MP’s career. That MP was current Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin. One of the more curious outcomes of this, was Martin alleging that I was in breach of the Harmful Digital Communications Act for what I had written. And I say ‘curious’ for two reasons.

First, because I didn’t think that articles critical of political figures were what the Act was supposed to cover (although at the time, Martin was quite definite that it was her experience working on the drafting of the Act that afforded her the insight to assert otherwise) – not least because, unlike with defamation, under the HDCA “Truth” is not actually a defence.

And second, because I really wasn’t expecting ACT’s David Seymour to leap to my defence. Even if he phrased it as “sticking up for people you wouldn’t really want to have over for dinner.”

I’ve always had some time for David Seymour after that. Because as it turned out, sometimes a principled libertarian really is a useful sort to have around and actively engaged in our nation’s politics. A sentence the younger, and decidedly more black-and-white [in multiple shades of the term] Curwen Ares Rolinson would no doubt have been aghast at typing.

Now, I’m not bringing all that up for the purposes of point-scoring or seeking to re-open an old feud. The past is the past. Yet it can provide a usefully instructive guide to the future. To her credit, Martin did not go through with laying an HCDA complaint against me (although she obliquely and unfavourably compared me to Cameron Slater, so you win some – you lose some).

But other MPs may not necessarily have shown as much restraint. It does not take too much of a political memory to recall various instances demonstrating that this isn’t an entirely hypothetical situation. At several points, the previous National-led Government subjected journalists, and a certain errant TV cameraman, to various forms of legal pressure in pretty direct response to exposes inconvenient for them.

That, I feel, is a pretty interesting test for prospective legislation, as it happens – would we be comfortable with it in place if National were to be the one using it?

And, given it was only a few months ago that the then-Leader of the National Party was surreptitiously meeting with the head of China’s secret police … some might suggest that when it comes to this kind of legislation – the National Party may be a bit too comfortable with its prospect, already.

Nobody should be looking to build a Great Fire Wall of Aotearoa to replicate in miniature the Chinese one.

And, to be fair and sure – I’m not sure that this is what Minister Martin thinks she’s doing, either. I would certainly hope not.

But, as the example of my work being rendered inaccessible in the UK for allegedly running afoul (somehow) of their pornography-filter shows … it doesn’t necessarily matter what the politician enacting a law actually means nor intends for it to cover. Whether intentionally (by somebody) or inadvertently, these things grow. And they don’t always grow particularly rationally, either.

Best to be very sure that this is both the path, trajectory, and mechanism we want to go down before we start upon that road.

Because the risks inherent in doing this badly – are quite some “objectionable” content and conduct, indeed.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Kia ora Curwen
    Some years ago I made the mistake of discussing over the telephone the role of the monarchy in New Zealand with a person who was not sympathetic to my views and felt “disturbed, irritated and annoyed” by my opinions.
    The New Zealand Police alleged this was a breach of Section 114 of the Telecommunications Act, and charged me accordingly. A District Court judge (later disgraced) convicted me as charged. The conviction was subsequently quashed by the Court of Appeal.
    There is some comfort to be taken from the final outcome of that case, but the fact remains that the Realm of New Zealand is a state with all the constitutional, legislative and political prerequisites for a tyrannical dictatorship already in place, and there is no shortage of political figures on the right, left and centre, together with police, military and intelligence personnel who are willing to take us there.
    Ms Martin is not alone.
    But neither are we, and our people have the power to resist and repulse the colonial regime as it inexorably gravitates towards fascism.

  2. No! I don’t want any politician or government employee deciding what I can and cannot see or hear. Yes I know we have censors for publicly available films and publications, but I still get the option to go and look for material. There is a lot of material online which is clearly exploitative. That and other material can be filtered out by a person deciding to have a filter installed on their device if they so wish. Although that is not foolproof. Me, I see it and avoid it.

    As it says in the article, the big problem is unintended consequences. A good example is a filter blocking an article on breast cancer. This has happened. There should be a requirement (if you allow filtering) to display a message to the user indicating the content is blocked and why. This blanket filtering gives too much opportunity for someone’s personal morality or political beliefs to be forced on others. Let those who wish to have their experience controlled by others opt in if they wish to. Those in the know can easily work around it anyway. The rules around what is restricted also need to be published and debated. Provided debate is not construed as an acceptance of the proposition.

    • Totally agree Alan, with all the best intentions in the world a bunch of pollys deciding what i should and shouldn’t hear and read scares the beegezus out of me. I still remember clearly a late night vote some years ago in parliament,when our esteemed leaders were trying to pass a piece of legislation which they thought was going to CONTROL THE INTERNET!!! At one stage in the proceedings one of these towers of intellect stated “oh i get it, it’s like skynet”. To be brutally honest i very much doubt that the understanding of IT across the house in general is much higher, and swapping one bunch for another will not markedly alter the situation.

  3. We are being monitored constantly today Curwen.

    As a spokesperson for our NGO I often am told the media cannot print our material as the editor has informed us that they have been warned to be careful to print any RNZ materials and other press releases already now apparently.

    So they are being controlled down all the way down to it now affecting our rights to free speech even if it is quoted materials from other press media articles.

    What the hell is going on here??????

  4. Why should the Chch lunatic’s manifesto be censored?
    Let it be read by anyone who wants to so they can see how demented and evil some of these ideas are.
    If you try to suppress speech it only succeeds in driving it underground and turn it into a festering sore.

      • It should follow that if one has the right to love, why shouldn’t one have the right to hate? However repulsive that is, you can’t have one without the other.

  5. If Labour went about its government labours with the goal of ameliorating the bad, and improving the circumstances of the poor, and forcing business to act responsibly, and not allowing them to use the country as a base for rampant asset building as best they could, such as introducing again – stamp duty and estate duty , they would do much good and less harm.

    By being purist smartypants following their own prejudices and certainties they muck up our world for us. They make think their intentions are good, I see them as excessive, darrogant and superior; we know best. Notice how keen they are on Zero this and that. It fits with my idea that there is going to be an outburst of religious fervour that all will notice soon. At present it is nascent, but there are troubling signs and not in the sky either, if anyone wants to make rude remarks.

    • You hit the nail on the head Greywarbler

      This government appears to consist of purse-lipped primary school teachers who know what’s best for us and who just want us all to “be kind”, but when pushed would slip into something akin to Nurse Ratched out of ‘One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest’.

  6. One of the best articles you have written Curwen Ares Rolinson!

    Sadly NZ is edging towards removing freedom of speech in this country, one stupid idea at a time.

    Reminds me of the Chinese government who also filters to make sure people residing in China only receive appropriate information as decried by themselves. NZ seems to be moving in that blind censorship direction!

    Social media are doing the same thing, and as such are censoring the wrong information. A woman breastfeeding a child is now considered pornography. Social media can create individualised information that influences their choices.

    I respect Tracy Martin but politicians don’t understand that they are curtailing freedom of speech as the laws can be used in a different context and will be going forward they are opening a can of worms when there is more pressing issues that they should be concentrating on that removing freedom of speech.

    Also the NZ government is not exactly known for their IT understanding, from the ‘treasury hack’ to the ministry of education advising school principals to give away kids data to Chinese data firms, to thinking freebies and advice from big IT business in a lazy way, is not motivated by self interest going forward and thus the advice is flawed in many instances…

    UK also guilty of lazy privacy and IT… Remember NZ’s quickest NZ citizen, Peter Thiel…

    How CIA-backed Palantir embedded itself in the NHS
    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2020/05/16/inside-story-cia-backed-palantir-embedded-nhs-socialite-running/

    Peter Thiel’s Creepy Tech Firm Is Helping The Government Track Coronavirus
    Palantir, co-founded by the billionaire Trump supporter, is reportedly playing a key role collecting data as the president seeks to reopen the country.
    https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/04/peter-thiels-creepy-tech-firm-is-helping-the-government-track-coronavirus

    Funny enough getting private practise to do everything can eventually lead to massive costs, complexity and deaths.

    How a decade of privatisation and cuts exposed England to coronavirus
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/31/how-a-decade-of-privatisation-and-cuts-exposed-england-to-coronavirus

    Likewise getting the fox to guard the hen house or worse multiple hen houses around the world, based on shareholder profit might not be in societies interests… especially when the founder does not believe in democracy….

    Peter Thiel Once Wrote That Women Getting The Vote Was Bad For Democracy
    https://www.huffpost.com/entry/peter-thiel-women-democracy_n_5747079be4b03ede4413f6f5?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly9kdWNrZHVja2dvLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAE-Z_64M9yGvmfOUCyNHQDD9myRp6lQm3_0eMkM-bUgFaxRUqQuCS8eiHLLYqdI3qFClH1bOBZwG9nQD0GXm7KvWwynx69XHPmzEBHZhQB3ipCVmsnCx1PMYHi_3psR1ewWWLDQW0Mq2xZTpMxv6mttJ0wgnwx2xFYgcf5Dv8_Gu

    • 100% SaveNZ

      I couldn’t’ say it better, as we will have our freedom of speech slowly slowly eroded until we are there where China already is at now.

      I wonder if China is being used here in NZ to blanket us under the same system as we have a Chinese spy inside the opposition National Party now?

  7. Kia ora ano Curwen
    If you search the Kiwipolitico website you will find an interesting post about an obstacle that was thrown in the way of Dr Paul Buchanan’s application for New Zealand citizenship. As Dr Buchanan tells it, an anonymous informant advised the state authorities that Buchanan’s loyalty to the Queen was at least questionable. A DIA official, presumably an SIS agent, then flew to Auckland to interview Buchanan and determine whether there was substance to the claim. Buchanan was furious, not at the DIA/SIS who he considered to be “just doing their job” but at the informant.
    Yet to a more objective mind, the informant is not the source of the problem. The problem is that the colonial regime uses state intelligence apparatus backed by anonymous informants to cast a net of political surveillance and control over the population at large.
    In the case I referred to in my earlier comment, the informant went to the police with a complaint of sedition. The police decided that any overtly political charges would back fire on them, but they did see an opportunity to bring charges under the Telecommunications Act, and that would have worked for them except that a higher court ruled that the Act’s reference to “annoying, irritating or disturbing” behaviour could not reasonably be extended to cover the expression of political ideas.
    The lesson to be drawn from these two cases is that there are elements within the colonial regime which will go to great length to intimidate, silence and punish their critics. Up to the present they have been constrained by the scruples of an independent judiciary, but that will change as more and more members of the Intelligence Community (SIS/GCSB) are appointed to the High Court.
    So be prepared for what is coming. Tracy Martin may be the least of your worries.

  8. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Very concerning direction being taken here, and it’s at a time when there are major news stories crowding out other info.

  9. The prospect are very disconcerting;
    Censorship of websites is not new and is done regularly outside of NZ.
    After 911 and the “Patriot” Act political discussion websites disappeared from the net.

    Many of these were not radical websites but some were obviously very inconvenient for the govt of the day.
    US websites of crank discussions on fake news or deliberately set up fake or bought “experts” on climate, HAARP mind control, and a plethora of misinformation, to confuse and distract the public. This type of website does not get censored in the USA but does get censored in China.
    In China it is an offense to publish or spread false information.

Comments are closed.