It wasn’t part of the original announcement of a $17 million boost in funding for the Department of Internal Affairs’ Censorship Compliance Unit, but the Prime Minister’s admission that the Government was looking into an internet filter to block violent online content might be the most important piece of news to come out of Monday.

Internet Service Providers have cautiously got on board with the new programme, while specifying that they want to see the details. InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter said, “if you were going to do an approach to filtering, the approach that’s used for the Digital Child Exploitation Filtering Service is probably the one that you would want to mimic”.

However, Carter said, “generally speaking, we don’t support centralised internet filtering”.

Ardern’s announcement unexpected

At a background briefing about the additional funding on Monday, DIA officials declined to comment on the possibility of an internet filter targeting extremist content, beyond acknowledging that it was possible.

“It is an area where we would need to provide some advice to ministers,” an official said.

However, at her post-Cabinet press conference, Ardern said the Government was looking into a new filter. “We do need to look at options like voluntary filters,” she said.

“That is something we use already for child exploitation and we are now exploring for the issue of terrorist and violent extremist content.”

DCEFS a useful model

The DCEFS is the existing internet filter run by DIA. It is voluntary, meaning individual ISPs choose whether to sign up for it. According to the Government, most have.

The list of URLs is overseen by an Independent Reference Group and populated solely by websites hosting child exploitation material deemed objectionable by the Chief Censor.

It is unclear what form a new filter would take. If it was closely modeled on the DCEFS, it could be restricted to blocking content that the Chief Censor has determined is objectionable.

Carter told Newsroom that the DCEFS is a good basis. “The institutional machinery of the Censor’s office and the legislation is already there,” he said.

“It has some pretty robust external oversight. When you bundle up that set of characteristics, it’s the approach that’s least likely to suffer from scope creep and the least likely to be turned towards alternative purposes. It’s the approach that people can have the most confidence in because ISPs aren’t forced into using it.”

No silver bullet

However, Carter stressed that there was no silver bullet for blocking access to violent extremist and terrorist content.

“What the filter does is it stops people from falling into this stuff by accident. It disrupts access to it without making any pretense that it’s going to get all the [objectionable] content off the internet,” he said.

“It isn’t designed to and won’t solve the problem of every single person finding every single version of this content.”

If someone is determined to view objectionable content, the filter can be evaded through the use of a Virtual Private Network or other tools.

ISPs react cautiously

The big three Internet Service Providers – Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees – all  stressed that they don’t make decisions about blocking or filtering content lightly.

A Spark NZ spokesperson said the company wants “to work with Government, the wider industry and civil society organisations to make the internet a better place for New Zealanders”.

“Achieving the right balance between consumer choice and censorship (by government agency or any other party such as an ISP) is an important issue that merits careful consideration.”

Mat Bolland, a spokesperson for 2degrees, told Newsroom that “ISPs want to protect their customers but also allow them to have internet freedom”.

Providers still intrigued

At the same time, the ISPs said they wanted to hear more details.

Vodafone NZ’s spokesperson, Nicky Preston, told Newsroom, “We have some questions around how an opt-in mechanism might apply, for example who will decide what constitutes as extremist content, how the filter can be applied, and will it be able to differentiate between legitimate use and extremist content hosted on the same site”.

“We will continue to engage with relevant officials as they determine specifics,” she said.

Likewise, Spark’s spokesperson said the company would “engage in the debate to make sure that we have clarity, certainty and the right legal protections in place for ISPs who participate in any voluntary filter for terrorist and violent extremist content”.

“I think it’s heading in the right direction and, as always, we want to get into the detail,” Bolland said. “Sometimes these issues can be quite fraught and we hope there’s a level of public consultation in what that process is.”

Action needed after March 15

All three ISPs said they understood the importance of such measures in the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attack.

“Following the events in Christchurch earlier this year, we’ve taken a consistent view that the appropriate agencies of Government should put in place a robust policy framework to address the important issues surrounding such material being distributed online and freely available,” Spark’s spokesperson said.

“The events in Christchurch on 15 March were unprecedented and the content that was shared in the aftermath was abhorrent. This raised a number of questions around how companies and ISPs like Vodafone respond to extremist content online,” Preston said.

“More broadly, we agree with the need for a coordinated approach working in concert with government and non-governmental agencies, online platforms and civil society,” she added.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment