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Internet censorship provisions to be scrapped

Newsroom logo Newsroom 21/06/2021 Marc Daalder
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The Government has dropped an internet censorship draft law that human rights advocates and tech experts alike had opposed, Marc Daalder reports

The most controversial provision of a bill to fight online extremism will be dropped, after the minister responsible for the effort indicated she no longer supported it.

The Films, Videos, and Publications Classification (Urgent Interim Classification of Publications and Prevention of Online Harm) Amendment Bill - until now known colloquially as the "internet filtering bill" – would have enabled the Government to block access to websites hosting content deemed objectionable by the Chief Censor. It is already illegal to make, possess or distribute such content, but the bill would have granted the Government significant censorious powers with little oversight.

Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti told Newsroom she would tell the Parliamentary committee responsible for the legislation to stop work on enacting mandatory internet filters.

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"I will soon write to the select committee to indicate Cabinet’s decision to remove the current filtering provisions from the Bill, and that their report will not need to include recommendations on the filtering provisions," she said.

However, Tinetti said voluntary internet filters that internet service providers could choose to sign up to should remain on the table, outside of legislation. The only existing government-run filter in New Zealand, which deals with child sexual exploitation content, is a voluntary filter.

The bill was a legacy of work done by former New Zealand First MP and minister Tracey Martin. When Labour's Tinetti took over the Internal Affairs role after the election, she said she was open to changing the internet filter provisions.

"When I first came in as Minister and took over this Bill, I had the option of discharging the Bill or seeing it through. Because the harms it seeks to address are urgent – as highlighted by the livestreaming of the Christchurch Mosque terrorist attacks on March 15 – I was quite convinced that the Bill needed to progress through to select committee," Tinetti said.

"I anticipated that establishing the legal parameters for a potential web filter to block objectionable content would be a big part of the discussions at select committee."

Every party in Parliament, other than the governing Labour Party, voted against the first reading of the bill while expressing opposition to the internet filter provisions. Other aspects of the bill, like a measure which gives the Government the ability to issue takedown notices for objectionable content or a provision which makes it illegal to livestream objectionable content, have been far less controversial.

While edits to these measures were suggested at select committee and there is not quite cross-party agreement on all of them, the internet filter proposal garnered near unanimous opposition from submitters. Even the Chief Censor, David Shanks, said there was too little detail around how internet filters would be used and too few safeguards around their use.

"We need to embed, in such a potentially powerful tool, fundamental protections around human rights and freedom of expression," he cautioned.

"Our view is simply that, at a basic level, there needs to be detail and transparency about the circumstances under which such a tool would be used, for what types and categories of content, that a clear review and appeal pathway should be provided for in primary legislation."

Tinetti told Newsroom that the volume of submissions against the filtering provisions helped shift her thinking.

"The filtering provisions have been the most submitted upon aspect of the Bill – and the majority of the submissions that mentioned the filtering provisions were opposed to it," she said.

"While filtering can be a useful tool to prevent access to and mitigate harms from illegal objectionable content online, currently the approach taken in the Bill does not provide sufficient safeguards to prevent potential impacts on freedom of expression."

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