New Zealand’s largest internet providers have reversed plans to stop blocking websites which hosted videos of the Christchurch terror attack, after a last-minute intervention by the Government.

In the wake of the mosque shootings, a number of New Zealand’s biggest ISPs took what they themselves acknowledged was an “unprecedented step” – blocking websites which were hosting a video of the attack live-streamed by the alleged murderer, as well as his manifesto.

In an open letter explaining the move and calling for action from larger tech companies, the chief executives of Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees said the decision was the right one in “such extreme and tragic circumstances”.

“We also accept it is impossible as internet service providers to prevent completely access to this material, but hopefully we have made it more difficult for this content to be viewed and shared – reducing the risk our customers may inadvertently be exposed to it and limiting the publicity the gunman was clearly seeking.”

On Tuesday evening, both Spark and Vodafone told Newsroom they would start to remove the remaining website blocks overnight.

“We believe we have now reached the point where we need to cease our extreme temporary measures to block these websites and revert to usual operating procedures,” a Spark spokeswoman said.

However, less than two hours after its initial response, Spark said the websites would continue to be blocked for several more days “following specific requests from Government”.

Newsroom understands the U-turn came after Government officials held discussions with the company, asking it to keep the blocks in place until after the official memorial service for the victims of the attack took place on Friday.

Vodafone confirmed it was also “waiting a bit longer to unblock websites while the Government sorts through a few things”, while 2degrees corporate affairs chief Mathew Bolland said the company had not been contacted by the Government, but was already mindful of its timing given the memorials ahead.

‘A useful short-term tool’

The ISPs’ original actions have raised issues of censorship, with the companies acknowledging that in some circumstances access to legitimate content may have been prevented.

Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker said website blocking had been “a really useful short-term tool” to stop the spread of the content.

Cocker’s organisation, which had served as a “collation point” for people reporting objectionable content related to the attacks, had helped to pass on the URLs of websites which refused to voluntarily remove the footage.

“They’ve [the ISPs] been really clear with everybody that they took on the filtering responsibility because they wanted to play their part in reducing the obvious harm occurring in the aftermath of the attacks, and they did that.”

Thomas Beagle, chairman of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, said he had sympathy for the approach taken by ISPs following the “ghastly” attack, but the public needed to ask questions about whether similar blocking would occur in future.

“That was an exceptional situation and people took exceptional action – of course, the worry is now that it’s been done once, are people then going to start thinking, we can do it for other things as well?”

“Civil liberties are traditionally concerned with government interference, but I think that when you’re talking about the dominant players who have 99 percent of the mobile market or more…that’s also an effective form of censorship as well.”

While there was an argument that the companies were simply exercising their contractual rights, Beagle said their near-monopoly in the telecommunications market meant there was a significant censorship issue.

“Civil liberties are traditionally concerned with government interference, but I think that when you’re talking about the dominant players who have 99 percent of the mobile market or more…that’s also an effective form of censorship as well.”

However, more traditional censorship by the Government could “extend and grow in an undesirable manner”, and would require a significant public conversation, he said.

The Department of Internal Affairs has a filter which can block websites in a more effective manner, but Beagle said its use was constrained to child sexual abuse material and it could not handle large-scale traffic.

While some of the websites subject to blocking have been easily identified – including 8chan, the notorious message board where the alleged attacker posted the initial link to the live-stream – there does not appear to be a definitive list of which sites were blocked and for how long.

A Vodafone spokesperson said the company would not release a list of the blocked websites as it did not want to give them publicity – a stance supported by Cocker.

“Although the content is blocked by three major ISPs, it’s not blocked by every major ISP which means you’d essentially be handing people a shopping list of places they can go to get the content.”

Beagle said his preference was for the companies to be open about which websites they blocked and why, noting that the Council for Civil Liberties had (unsuccessfully) challenged a Government decision to withhold a list of websites blocked by the DIA’s child abuse filter.

Censorship debate begins

What is clear is that the debate how to censor offensive material online is just beginning.

Cocker said he supported the development of a formal, government-led process for blocking objectionable content when necessary, which would allow greater specificity in how content was blocked and set up oversight measures to avoid abuse.

“Those are the kind of things that come back to a government agency being empowered to take that responsibility, then all the telcos have got to do is just add the URL to the list and block it.”

However, Beagle said there was a question of whether ad-hoc arrangements would be preferable to a formalised process, given the rarity of an event like the Christchurch attack.

“Is it better to say hey, this is so out of the realm of normal day-to-day business we shouldn’t actually try and cater for it?

“I think it’s safe to say that we shouldn’t be rejigging our entire security infrastructure, internet filtering and censorship based on a one-off event which is utterly exceptional in New Zealand history.”

A spokeswoman for Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister Kris Faafoi declined to comment on the ISPs’ actions regarding the websites.

*This article has been updated with comment from Vodafone, confirming it is also delaying the unblocking process.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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