Even the Chief Censor is speaking out against empowering government to censor the internet with little oversight.

MPs have again been told to scrap plans for the Department of Internal Affairs to censor the internet.

At the second public session of a Governance and Administration Select Committee hearing, experts from civil society and government agencies alike said more work was needed on the provisions in the new Films, Videos and Publications Classification (Urgent Interim Classification of Publications and Prevention of Online Harm) Amendment Bill,.

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As it stands, there is no legal framework for censoring the internet in New Zealand. The only existing internet filter is voluntary for Internet Service Providers to sign up to, and covers child sexual exploitation content. Efforts to block access to the video of the March 15 terror video in the immediate aftermath of the attack highlighted these regulatory gaps, as ISPs acted independently and without official government backing.

The amendments to the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act would allow the Department of Internal Affairs and the Minister of Internal Affairs to create internet filters to block access to content ruled objectionable by the Chief Censor.

“We need to embed in such a potentially powerful tool, fundamental protections around human rights and freedom of expression.”
– David Shanks, Chief Censor

However, at Wednesday’s select committee session, even the Chief Censor himself said there weren’t enough safeguards in the legislation around the internet filtering powers.

David Shanks said the powers could be useful, particularly for when websites refuse to remove objectionable content after being issued a takedown notice (another power created by the bill).

“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.”

Shanks said this was broadly in line with submissions from other experts as well.

Also on Wednesday, Internet NZ submitted on the bill, in opposition to the internet filter.

Policy director Kim Connolly-Stone said an overly-broad filter “could also block un-objectionable material that our citizens have a right to access in a democracy”. She pointed to the existing child exploitation filter which, due to an error in 2013, blocked all access to Gmail services.

“That gives you an idea of some of the problems you can get with overreach. There are no guaranteed safeguards or appeals written into the legislation.”

She also said a filter could be circumnavigated with a VPN and wouldn’t catch objectionable content shared on private messaging apps or major social media platforms (which would be unlikely to be blocked).

That was a point echoed by representatives from Vodafone NZ, who said they backed a focused internet filter but that the existing legislation was too broad.

Spark NZ also called for a tightly-focused, centralised internet filter and said more clarity was needed, either in the legislation or in draft regulations from government.

No submitters to date have come out in complete support of the internet filtering provisions as worded.

Speaking to Newsroom before the select committee hearings began, Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti said she was open to changes to that provision.

“The filter area is [one] I absolutely anticipated would come through and be a big part of the discussions at select committee. I am very open to looking at further shaping the work around the filtering system and hearing what’s been said,” she said at the time.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also indicated to Newsroom a willingness to alter the internet filtering rules.

“We’ve used these systems specifically before on child pornography, so there’s a framework there. But again, you know, going through a proper process will allow us to get input as to whether or not people feel like those appropriate safeguards are in place,” she said.

Labour was the only party to support the FVPCA amendments at first reading in Parliament in February. Every other party opposed the bill, citing the internet filters as a primary objection.

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

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