ISP web blocks and online censorship debate

The Christchurch mosque attacks prompted unprecedented action from New Zealand Internet Service Providers, who tried to block access to the video of the attack.  This has just been extended.

We are heading into some important debate about censorship and free speech.

Newsroom:  ISP keeps Chch web blocks after Govt intervention

New Zealand’s largest internet provider has reversed plans to stop blocking websites which hosted videos of the Christchurch terror attack, after a last-minute intervention by the Government.

In the wake of the mosque shootings, a number of New Zealand’s biggest ISPs took what they themselves acknowledged was an “unprecedented step” – blocking websites which were hosting a video of the attack live-streamed by the alleged murderer, as well as his manifesto.

In an open letter explaining the move and calling for action from larger tech companies, the chief executives of Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees said the decision was the right one in “such extreme and tragic circumstances”.

On Tuesday evening, both Spark and Vodafone told Newsroom they would start to remove the remaining website blocks overnight.

“We believe we have now reached the point where we need to cease our extreme temporary measures to block these websites and revert to usual operating procedures,” a Spark spokeswoman said.

However, less than two hours after its initial response, Spark said the websites would continue to be blocked for several more days “following specific requests from Government”.

Newsroom understands the U-turn came after Government officials held discussions with the company, asking it to keep the blocks in place until after the official memorial service for the victims of the attack took place on Friday.

No indication of how much persuasion was required to prompt a rethink.

The ISPs’ original actions have raised issues of censorship, with the companies acknowledging that in some circumstances access to legitimate content may have been prevented.

Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker said website blocking had been “a really useful short-term tool” to stop the spread of the content.

“They’ve [the ISPs] been really clear with everybody that they took on the filtering responsibility because they wanted to play their part in reducing the obvious harm occurring in the aftermath of the attacks, and they did that.”

But this leads to an important discussion on censorship. There is already online material that is ‘censored’, as it should be (child porn, snuff movies, terrorism related material), but there will always be pushes for more limits and also less limits.

Thomas Beagle, chairman of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, said he had sympathy for the approach taken by ISPs following the “ghastly” attack, but the public needed to ask questions about whether similar blocking would occur in future.

“That was an exceptional situation and people took exceptional action – of course, the worry is now that it’s been done once, are people then going to start thinking, we can do it for other things as well?”

While there was an argument that the companies were simply exercising their contractual rights, Beagle said their near-monopoly in the telecommunications market meant there was a significant censorship issue.

“Civil liberties are traditionally concerned with government interference, but I think that when you’re talking about the dominant players who have 99 percent of the mobile market or more…that’s also an effective form of censorship as well.”

However, more traditional censorship by the Government could “extend and grow in an undesirable manner”, and would require a significant public conversation, he said.

There needs to be a lot of meaningful public discussion on the degree of censorship – as there has been over the Chief Censor recently ruling the terrorist’s manifesto harmful and there for illegal to possess or distribute in New Zealand (the easy availability internationally renders this a weak means of protection).

Censorship debate begins

What is clear is that the debate how to censor offensive material online is just beginning.

There has long been debate over censorship, but major events and actions in response will always draw more prominence to the arguments for and against.

Cocker said he supported the development of a formal, government-led process for blocking objectionable content when necessary, which would allow greater specificity in how content was blocked and set up oversight measures to avoid abuse.

“Those are the kind of things that come back to a government agency being empowered to take that responsibility, then all the telcos have got to do is just add the URL to the list and block it.”

However, Beagle said there was a question of whether ad-hoc arrangements would be preferable to a formalised process, given the rarity of an event like the Christchurch attack.

“Is it better to say hey, this is so out of the realm of normal day-to-day business we shouldn’t actually try and cater for it?

“I think it’s safe to say that we shouldn’t be rejigging our entire security infrastructure, internet filtering and censorship based on a one-off event which is utterly exceptional in New Zealand history.”

That’s an important point. A repeat of what happened in Christchurch seems very unlikely. Security measures should be reconsidered to look at how to minimise the risks, but public freedoms and free speech should not be over-restricted due to an abnormal one off situation.

46 Comments

    • Ray

       /  27th March 2019

      That noise you hear is the slamming of various stable doors long after the horse has bolted.
      A couple of weeks ago there was outrage amongst the “woke” that the police were walking around armed, now we are in high alert, no problem.
      The police have long called for more control over firearms and their owners, now absolutely no problem.
      More surveillance, no problem.
      Chance of these things stopping the next act of terrorism…..slightly above zero.

  1. lurcher1948

     /  27th March 2019

    Web blocks are just a challenge to be easily overcome just saying

    • Duker

       /  27th March 2019

      Evading ISP level blocking ?
      Dont they block the IP address you want to acess. Thats the metadata side which isnt encrypted , especially for your acess request from your browser .
      You first have to go through the DNS side of things , no DNS number and you are out of luck

      • Trevors_elbow

         /  27th March 2019

        Content can be read dressed…mirrored….disguised in many ways …. and then accessed using a variety of encryption tools and tunnel tools.

        I have no desire to watch a nutters real life shootem up sick fantasy video….

        But blocking the some of sites where the video appeared is dodgy if maintained indefinitely. Hints at government control of the web a la China…. and will only drive stuff underground where it cant be monitored….softly softly catches the monkey.. loud noise drives the monkey away where it cant be watched properly

        • Dukeofurl

           /  27th March 2019

          never heard of the dark web !
          It already exists, and blocking some terrorists stuff now isnt going to change that. You are already 10 years or more behind the times.
          Complicated methods that only technical experts can use properly arent a reason it not continue being blocked for 99.99% of the population.
          The main advantage is that material like this when found on a person of interests computer after a forensic analysis helps get a conviction.
          And to find a mirror site – wont you have to use a search engine and they definitely keep records of searches

    • Duker

       /  27th March 2019

      Evading ISP level blocking ?
      Dont they block the IP address you want to acess. Thats the metadata side which isnt encrypted , especially for your acess request from your browser .
      You first have to go through the DNS side of things , no DNS number and you are out of luck.

      If they even keep track of DNS requests at the ISP level in NZ you could be in serious trouble- I could see a sanction such as 48hr complete internet block from the ISP for those users who do try it !

  2. Duker

     /  27th March 2019

    It cant both be a rare event AND no action is required to restrict public freedoms.
    They are ONLY restricting this rare event online – dont care how long they do it for .

    Just because the phenomenon of ‘rubber neckers’ will occur for a roadside accident doesnt mean we have to make this terrorist event available online here ever.

  3. its odd, as the blocking has been quite successful and I cant be arsed circumventing it.
    Legitimate resource for all things terror/war related website liveleak is blocked, much to my chagrin (I follow the Syrian Democractic forces “Kurds” a bit)

    I think blocking in this manner for a respectful amount of time is appropriate, but the thought of permanent blocking of the likes of liveleak is untenable.

    • Duker

       /  27th March 2019

      The Censor bans are permanent , unless revoked, so why shouldnt internet blocking be permanent.
      Rubber neckers will want to rubber neck but thats not a reason

      • they should go more granular then and block specific sub pages, instead of entire sites,

        • Duker

           /  27th March 2019

          You could be a little less obvious that you are one of those committing illegal acts.
          ..more granular… sounds like you get to a blocked site for the purposes of accessioning the banned material

          • or I just want to access regular events about clashes in baghouz without accessing the banned material, its pretty easy to scan a website to block a page or an object on the page (embedded video), as opposed to sabotage on an entire site.

            • Duker

               /  27th March 2019

              Dont think DNS level blocking allows you to acess different parts of the same website….just move on.

  4. Finbaar Rustle

     /  27th March 2019

    A couple of weeks cease fire.
    Then a couple of months to restart the motors.
    By May every thing back up and running.
    Normal service resumed.
    It will be like nothing has changed.

  5. David in Aus

     /  27th March 2019

    Notwithstanding the need for censorship in the case of the terrorist video, this is being used by some to expand that they deem as offensive and inappropriate.

    That is the danger of censorship, who deems what is inappropriate. The Stuff website is banning comments on Global Warming for example. It is cranks and misfits that alert society to groupthink erroneous conclusions. Galileo was jailed for his heretical views that the Earth revolved around the Sun. The benefits of free speech outweigh the downsides.

    The problem with the Global Warming debate is that one side has carte blanche license to exaggerate and talk mistruths. They are often motivated by politics and not by science. The debate is more complex than higher levels of greenhouses gases rise global temperatures. It is the degree of temperature elevation and the options and costs of containment that are the source of debate.

    Comments discussing the forecasts of 10-20 years ago which are self-evidently wrong will be banned under new guidelines in Stuff.

    There is always a danger that there is an emotional overreach to atrocities like the one in Christchurch. There are always factions in society who thinks their views should be the only ones that are aired.

    • david in aus

       /  27th March 2019

      “There are always factions in society who thinks their views should be the only ones that are aired” also known as Fascists.

      • Finbaar Rustle

         /  27th March 2019

        In a world of free speech surely the right wing Fascists
        you refer to should have their say too.

        • david in aus

           /  27th March 2019

          Fascist come from all political persuasions. The terms Fascist comes from the words meaning stick. To rule with a stick. Communists, Nazis, and authoritarian regimes all come under the umbrella of Fascists.
          Unfortunately, some in the Left-wing are blind to their fascists tendencies. When you think you are just, that seems to over-ride everything. The problems is most idealogues think they are on the side of justice.

          • Finbaar Rustle

             /  27th March 2019

            “The problems is most idealogues think they are on the side of justice”.
            True.
            Everyone on this blog for example believes he/she knows the truth.
            Some in the left are blind to their fascists tendencies (never me). Unfortunately, most in the right-wing are blind to their fascists tendencies (not you of course).

          • Duker

             /  27th March 2019

            Wrong . Communist and fascist are different sides of the ideology spectrum, all they shared was authoritarianism-
            nazism has its roots in conservatism ,militarism ,nationalism, racism, ‘ northern european’ superiority

            • david in aus

               /  27th March 2019

              North Korea: racism, communism, militarism.

              How does that square with your definitions?

              What they all share is ruling with a fist. It starts with control of the media and censorship.

    • Duker

       /  27th March 2019

      bad science always gets a free pass in the media.
      medical are just just as bad as climate stories
      https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/thiswayup/audio/201814614/science-alzheimer-s-breakthrough
      Breakthrough ?
      ‘Biogen scraps two Alzheimer drug trials, wipes $18 billion from market value’
      https://www.reuters.com/article/us-biogen-alzheimers/biogen-eisai-scrap-alzheimer-drug-trials-idUSKCN1R213G
      At lest medical research has gate keepers that climate science doesnt bother with , as any refutation is classified by hysterical reporters as ‘denier’

  6. Corky

     /  27th March 2019

    ”That’s an important point. A repeat of what happened in Christchurch seems very unlikely.”

    That is incorrect. However, the repeat will probably happen overseas..before another event in New Zealand.

    Pete, you are trying to straddle a reasoned middle line in this debate. That is commendable.
    However, the way I see it, you are either for free speech as we currently know it ( not my definition of free speech), or you are against free speech.

    You may have to choose. Because we are heading dangerously close towards a true Police state.

    • Duker

       /  27th March 2019

      Censorship laws in much the same form – updated for internet era- have been there since the middle 60s. No police state then or now
      Most of those making the most noise of complaint just have ‘entitleitis’
      ‘Free speech’ mantra seems to bring out the most absurd nonsense in some people. Wasnt around in 2011 or so when Hone Harawira was blocked by Campus Young Nats protest from appearing Auckland University law school, and he was an elected MP at the time.

      • Corky

         /  27th March 2019

        Second time you have used racist old Hone as an example. Remember my answer?

    • Finbaar Rustle

       /  27th March 2019

      What is a true Police state?

      • Corky

         /  27th March 2019

        That’s a fair questions, Finbaar.

        My definition without researching the facts would be:

        Circumvention of democratic processes. Implementation of legislation without due public disclosure and debate using instruments of the state to enforce such legislation. The continual narrowing of an individuals right to function as a free individual in a free society.

        All under the guise of an outwardly democratic society.

        The knee-jerk gun laws are an example. In a free society of rational human beings, Jacinda would be shown the door at the next election for implementing those laws. Instead she is lauded and will win the next without the need to campaign.

        To summarise- The government already has powers to circumvent our rights. They have already in the past shafted us of the true democratic right to choose. A true police state would carry on down that road until pretence is not even attempted

        .What’s your definition, Finbaar?

        • Blazer

           /  27th March 2019

          onya Corky you are ‘on record ‘ as always being .’.right’ and yet always being.’.wrong.’

          • Corky.

             /  27th March 2019

            Yes, so you say. In your own words give us your version of what you think a police state is. At least Finbarr gave it a go. So did I. Tell you what. Let’s see what definition is on the net.

            ”Police state is a term denoting a government that exercises power arbitrarily through the power of the police force. Originally, the term designated a state regulated by a civil administration, but since the beginning of the 20th century it has “taken on an emotional and derogatory meaning” by describing an undesirable state of living characterized by the overbearing presence of the civil authorities.[1] The inhabitants of a police state may experience restrictions on their mobility, or on their freedom to express or communicate political or other views, which are subject to police monitoring or enforcement. Political control may be exerted by means of a secret police force that operates outside the boundaries normally imposed by a constitutional state.[2] Robert von Mohl, who first introduced the rule of law to German jurisprudence, contrasted the Rechtsstaat (“legal” or “constitutional” state) with the anti-aristocratic Polizeistaat (“police state”).[3]”

        • Finbaar Rustle

           /  27th March 2019

          I thought a Police state was something akin to North Korea, Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu or Uganda under Amin.
          Calls for gun reform and a moderating of hate speech is hardly bordering on a police state. Labour holds a paper thin majority and MMP makes it impossible for any one party to ride rough shod over any one.
          NZ has a tiny police force let alone a military dictatorship.
          Regulating the Brobdingnagian internet is
          as likely as mining diamonds on Saturn.
          Safe to say freedom of speech in NZ will by Police state standards remain very open and free.

          • Duker

             /  27th March 2019

            Not paper thin: 63 seats to 57. 9( maj 6) previous government was 64 to 57 ( with overhang of 121) and 64 to 57 in 2011.

            Incorrect to call it paper thin.

            • Finbaar Rustle

               /  27th March 2019

              Yes but with Mr (deep contemplation) Peters holding the balance of power how strong is Labour’s “majority”?

    • duperez

       /  27th March 2019

      I said elsewhere: ‘Free speech’ gets plenty of attention and there are about 7.5 billion views on what it is, what it should be and how it should be seen.

      Corky, that means your statement, “However, the way I see it, you are either for free speech as we currently know it (not my definition of free speech), or you are against free speech” is not as definitive as the ease with which you say it.

      • Corky

         /  27th March 2019

        ”Corky, that means your statement, “However, the way I see it, you are either for free speech as we currently know it (not my definition of free speech), or you are against free speech” is not as definitive as the ease with which you say it.”

        Correct. As I say, my definition of free speech is anything goes. There is no such thing as hate speech in my opinion. That’s where I differ from all others on this blog. Unfortunately they believe that gives people the right to act on what they say. That is incorrect.

        So obviously Pete has a different opinion regarding what free speech is to him.

        My point is there must come a time down the track if we continue on the present political path when people like Pete will have to make a choice. A point when things go too far.

        For example… blogs may be required to put all posts through a government mandated algorithm that censors posts to a standard our government believes is acceptable.

        Are you for free speech or against? Would you comply?

        • I have to make choices all the time about how to manage speech here. Anything goes is not an option – that’s too unfair on those who are attacked, it’s not conducive to relatively free speech – it puts people off speaking or participating, and it increases dangers by normalising violence and other crap behaviour that raises risks in the physical world.

          I see no sign of coming anywhere near “things go too far”. I think that suggesting that is a gross overreaction to the current situation.

          I’m for free speech, with some safeguards and limitations. If people don’t like the limits I choose to apply here they are free to speak elsewhere, and put others at risk, or take those risks themselves.

          • Corky

             /  27th March 2019

            ”I have to make choices all the time about how to manage speech here. ”

            Yes you do. But that doesn’t involve the government. You have choices ( barring supposed hate speech). I’m talking about that choice being taken from you by the government.

            ”I see no sign of coming anywhere near “things go too far”. I think that suggesting that is a gross overreaction to the current situation.”

            I disagree. I believe we wont get to that point overnight. But I would ask you to think back 30 years, and if someone told you what New Zealand would be like circa 2019, I bet you would have laughed in their face. I know I would’ve. And I’m a supposed a conspiracy nut.

            ”I’m for free speech, with some safeguards and limitations. If people don’t like the limits I choose to apply here they are free to speak elsewhere, and put others at risk, or take those risks themselves.”

            I am not complaining about moderation on this blog. If I didn’t want to be here I would be gone. My point was hypothetical:

            ”Blogs may be required to put all posts through a government mandated algorithm that censors posts to a standard our government believes is acceptable.”

            Would you comply? Not an easy question. Passion v Law v tenability v annoyance v conceding v rebellion v fear v legacy.

            • “But I would ask you to think back 30 years, and if someone told you what New Zealand would be like circa 2019, I bet you would have laughed in their face. I know I would’ve. ”

              30 years ago was 1989, before the Internet for just about everyone, when about the only options for public speech were public meetings, talk back radio and letters to the editors that were heavily vetted.

              I doubt that many would have predicted that in 2019 there were extensive opportunities for public speech, via many online forums, and anyone who wants to can set up their own forums. I don’t see what this has to do with conspiracies.

              ”Blogs may be required to put all posts through a government mandated algorithm that censors posts to a standard our government believes is acceptable.”

              This is the only place I have seen this suggested. I have seen no indication whatsoever that our Government has any intention of anything like this. Sounds like paranoia based on nothing to me.

    • harryk

       /  27th March 2019

      ‘However, the repeat will probably happen overseas..before another event in New Zealand’

      Here’s my prediction – an act of terrorism perpetrated by the OPM will occur in West Papua, supported by New Zealanders, including Green and Labour parliamentarians, and perhaps partially funded by New Zealanders.

      It seems clear to me after just a week or so pushing on this issue that NZ opposition to terrorism is selective. So long as it takes place in someone else’s country there will be no outrage.

    • “However, the way I see it, you are either for free speech as we currently know it ( not my definition of free speech), or you are against free speech.’

      That doesn’t make sense to me. Free speech isn’t a binary, an either or. I’m for free speech as much as is possible without it having adverse effects and without it being abused. That is a complex and ever evolving thing.

      “You may have to choose.”

      Not free speech or not. And I don’t have to choose anything by continue to do what I see fit here, allowing open and robust discussion but minimising personal attacks, legal risks and trying to be decent about things.

      “Because we are heading dangerously close towards a true Police state.”

      I think that’s nonsense. There’s good cause for concern about how far some measure may go regarding speech limits, censorship, surveillance etc, but we are nowhere near a police state and I see virtually no risk of that.

      Exaggerating risks is not a good way of dealing with things. We need to be realistic, not paranoid,

  7. Conspiratoor

     /  27th March 2019

    I thought we had 15 to 20 years before we reached swedish levels of censorship. Thanks to one lunatic with a gun we are closing the gap fast

    • Duker

       /  27th March 2019

      Right wings loons have only themselves to blame… notice how you diminish as a lunatic when he was a perfectly sane white supremacist TERRORIST

    • Blazer

       /  27th March 2019

      they churn out a lot of..lunatics’ in the U.S.A Con…’I like everything about the place’….Honky Tonks.

      • Conspiratoor

         /  27th March 2019

        I share your love of the US blazer. In fact im seriously considering a bolthole in montana or palm springs to be my doomsday home …tossing up. Isnt choice a wonderful thing!

        • Blazer

           /  27th March 2019

          choice certainly is..I was told recently go to Heaven for the climate..and Hell for the…company.