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.