Government plans to subject tech companies like Facebook and Google to the same content regulations as news media and advertisers may have been put on hold, Marc Daalder reports

Public consultation on a policy to regulate content on social media is nearly five months overdue, with stakeholders worried it may have been canned.

The anodyne-sounding Content Regulatory Review was first announced by then-Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti in June 2021. It would unite the various regulatory frameworks for content, including the Broadcasting Standards Authority for TV and radio and the Advertising Standards Authority for ads, under a single policy. It would also expand to cover currently-unregulated content, like social media.

“We essentially have six different frameworks or different systems or regulatory functions that regulate the media or content in New Zealand. Most of these systems were developed in the 1980s or 1990s or suited those times,” Tinetti told Newsroom in 2021.

The expected consolidated framework was to be platform- and medium-neutral. In other words, it would apply the same legal force to printed flyers distributed in mailboxes and Hollywood movies and Facebook posts alike.

It would focus on “harm reduction”, with officials realising in the wake of the Christchurch attack that there are relatively few levers for them to pull to limit harm online.

A range of government and independent stakeholders were consulted on the policy in mid-2022 and a timeline on the Department of Internal Affairs website shows public consultation was due in September.

Newsroom understands officials had a public consultation document ready to go in late September.

Instead, there has been radio silence ever since, both to the public and the stakeholders. It is unclear why the consultation hasn’t launched when the document was ready last year.

Complicating factors is Chris Hipkins’ recent reshuffle, which put new minister Barbara Edmonds in the Internal Affairs portfolio. A spokesperson for Edmonds could only say she was still getting her feet under her desk.

“As the new incoming minister, Hon Edmonds is currently receiving briefings from officials and working through her priorities for the work programme. Announcements regarding the next steps for the DIA content regulatory review will be made in due course,” the spokesperson said.

No decision has been made to scrap the programme, Newsroom understands, but the lack of communication has troubled those who weighed in on the policy. Stakeholders had their doubts about the specifics in the early consultation sessions but supported the thinking behind the work.

Tom Barraclough, co-director of the think tank Brainbox Institute, said it would be a shame if the Government gave up entirely.

“It would be a missed opportunity to back away entirely in this space. We’re looked to as a leader, internationally, by a huge range of countries and people and companies and we can still play a leadership role here.”

He said the situation had also “been complicated to some degree” by the tech sector’s creation of its own self-regulation code last year.

Civil society warned in August that this code “looks to us like a Meta-led effort to subvert a New Zealand institution so that they can claim legitimacy without having done the work to earn it”.

Newsroom also reported that the Government harboured similar concerns, believing the code doesn’t require big tech companies to do anything differently, wasn’t consulted on appropriately and looks a lot like a fig leaf to ward off more serious regulation in the form of the Content Regulation Review.

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