from the move-fast-and-break-things-I-guess dept
New Zealand has been in the censorship business for years, but the government appears to believe it’s still not doing enough censoring. Legislation stemming from the government’s reaction to the live-streamed Christchurch shooting seeks to expand its ability to block content it deems to be objectionable. In most cases, this means content related to terrorism or violent extremism. But the livestreaming of a mass shooting has created an open-ended definition for the government to work with in conjunction with its criminalization of this act.
Newsroom has written up a very thorough examination of the proposed law, with this chilling bit found all the way at the end of its article.
Lastly, the legislation makes it an offence to livestream objectionable content. […] The new offence would be punishable by up to 14 years in prison if carried out by an individual or a $200,000 fine for corporations.
Define “objectionable.” Certainly livestreaming a mass murder would be objectionable, but not if you’re a witness to the horror, rather than the perpetrator. But who knows how the law will be read? The threat of a long prison sentence is likely to deter people from streaming horrific events, even if such streaming is newsworthy. This seems to leave everything up to prosecutorial discretion — something that often isn’t deployed reasonably or equitably.
There’s a lot more to this bill, though. The government wants ISPs and platforms to do more policing of content it doesn’t like. But even with more time and effort being put towards the proposal, legislators still seem hazy on the implementation details. And this uncertainty can be inflicted on the rest of the world.
For the purposes of this measure, “online content hosts” refers to companies “both in New Zealand and overseas that provide services to the public”.
Companies issued a takedown notice must remove the content “as soon as is reasonably practicable”, although they may be asked to securely and privately retain a copy for later investigation.
Non-compliant hosts can be taken to court and made to pay a fine of up to $200,000.
Legislators appear to believe website filtering will limit the amount of “objectionable” content available to New Zealand residents. Again, this proposal appears to build on the government’s past failures under the assumption that a renewed effort will make things work right this time. But if the past is any indication of future success, this is going to cause far more problems than it solves. ISPs are being asked to do something, but no one has made it explicitly clear what they should be doing.
Since the March 15 terror attack, ISPs have repeatedly asked the Government to create a framework for ordering the blocking or filtering of websites. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, ISPs butted heads with DIA officials who wanted content blocked but didn’t have the statutory authority to demand that.
The government is going to build a new filter list once it has the legal authority to do it. Hopefully, this effort will be less of a debacle. The previous effort was an ad hoc disaster.
The list of URLs to be blocked was hosted on a Google spreadsheet and on at least one occasion, an email full of website addresses for censoring was deleted by an email spam filter.
The legislation will attempt to bang this all together into a usable whole, but about the only thing that seems clear at this point is the government feels more and faster censorship of the web is necessary. The bill gives the country’s Chief Censor the power to make “interim” rulings on content, allowing this entity to expedite deletions, blocklist additions, and takedown demands. And this would cover whatever the government decides is “objectionable.” If it restrains itself to targeting extremist content, it still runs the risk of censoring newsworthy content that may contain information investigators and security agencies might have found useful. It will certainly end up accidentally censoring stuff it never meant to censor while allowing the content it’s trying to target to slip past its patchwork blockade.