Comment: Two major proposals to censor the internet in New Zealand have been advanced over the past few years and each has seen little backlash.

The first was the Government’s move to empower the Department of Internal Affairs to create web filters for illegal content, such as the footage of the March 15 terror attack or Isis execution tapes.

The idea was first mooted in late 2019 by Jacinda Ardern and the then Minister of Internal Affairs Tracey Martin. Legislation was introduced in 2020 and carried forward by Jan Tinetti after the election.

Though the law would have given vast powers with few checks or balances to unelected bureaucrats, it received relatively little attention. Newsroom covered the issue in depth and other media gave it cursory coverage, but there was no public outcry of the scale seen during debates about online censorship in the early 2010s.

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In the end, Tinetti pulled the filtering powers from the bill after submissions from experts and civil society overwhelmingly opposed it. The Government has now returned to the drawing board and is re-working how to block access to some of this illegal content in a way that recognises New Zealand’s global reputation for internet freedom and the importance of free expression in a democracy.

The second proposal came two weeks ago, when the National Party suggested it would enforce its new tax on offshore online gambling operators by banning those who don’t play ball.

National deputy and finance spokesperson Nicola Willis was clear that internet filters were to be used, even though when Martin in 2019 had suggested something similar for dealing with gambling she had basically been laughed out of the room.

Asked how the tax would be enforced, Willis said, “Other countries that have set up licensing regimes of this sort have been able to use geo-blocking and other measures to enforce those licensing regimes. It would be pretty simple. It would go like this: If you’re providing an online gambling service in New Zealand and you are not licensed and you are not registered, you will be shut down.”

What about Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)?

“Well, I understand that as soon as you were caught, you would be shut down.”

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, geo-blocking is when online services such as Netflix block access to their own platforms to people in different locations, often for licensing reasons. What Willis meant was filtering, in which the Government or Internet Service Providers block access to particular webpages or domains.

Second, the reason a journalist asked about VPNs was because they can pretty easily get around web filters. They’re also reasonably accessible and sometimes even free. So unless National is proposing to hunt down the gamblers themselves, her response to the question about VPNs is nonsense.

These are not just technical complaints.

The fact that web filters can be easily circumvented gets to the heart of the issue: will this even work?

Much of the scrutiny of National’s tax plan has focused on the foreign buyer tax. The commentary on gambling seems to concern whether the revenue estimates are realistic and the ties between National and the SkyCity casino group.

But even if there’s that much revenue to be gained, the plan still has no viable enforcement mechanism. Yes, a National government could implement a web filter for offshore gambling operators, but it would take almost anyone just five minutes to Google “how to download a VPN” and they’d be through.

Moreover, expanding New Zealand’s internet censorship regime merely for revenue-gathering purposes risks eroding the crucial concept of a free, open and secure internet.

Only one government-run filter exists right now. It targets only child sexual exploitation material. Even that filter is voluntary for Internet Service Providers to sign up to – most have, some haven’t.

So the most despicable (and illegal) content is only voluntarily blocked, while plenty of other disgusting and illegal content such as the Christchurch terrorist video remains readily available. And National’s next target for online censorship is overseas gambling operators? Really?

Online, as in real life, we need to strike a balance between liberties and harm reduction. There are valid arguments for expanding web filtering in New Zealand – but they are thoughtful and considered and happy to contend with counterarguments.

What National is proposing here is even less thought-through than the Government’s ham-fisted filter powers from 2020. When we’re gambling with something as important as the open internet, we’d better make sure it’s worth it.

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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