Guest Post: Why web filters won’t work and keeping speech free

A guest post by Melissa Lee MP:

As Parliament resumed for the 2021 sitting calendar, one of the first Bills that was put up for Introduction was the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification (Urgent Interim Classification of Publications and Prevention of Online Harm) Amendment Bill. An innocent enough sounding title but in reality, a legislative leviathan that could threaten the future of free internet in New Zealand.

In summary, the Bill makes livestreaming of objectionable content a specific criminal offence and gives significant powers to the Government to create statutory web filters that ISPs would be required to implement as well as empower the Chief Censor to force media and digital platforms alike operating online to takedown live coverage of breaking stories.

The Government has chosen not to word this Bill that way. They are choosing to make it about the abhorrent attacks that took place in Christchurch, something near irrelevant to the proposal which had been in the works since before they took place. This Bill really is about Censorship and fighting free speech.

As my colleague Simon Bridges, Nationals’ Justice Spokesperson, said “the Government’s taking the opportunity to go with their instincts to take power to themselves, to take control for themselves, and to be able to cancel”. This Bill gives power to the Government to stop events like those that we’ve seen in the United States from being live filmed. Think about the George Floyd incident and think should it be a crime to film and broadcast such actions live. Also think about how people who share that livestream could be implicated. That is the reality as it stands of this legislation.

We have a definition of ‘objectionable’ in New Zealand law and it mostly covers what we all would absolutely agree with. However the reason we can agree with the definition is because of the stringent processes behind the scenes, the legal arguments, the court cases and the ongoing debate about this definition and its application. A law creating web filters invariably must be enforced through algorithms and AI which at their heart are cold calculating number crunchers and at their best for the immediate future, a weak alternative for considered and debated human oversight.

If filters based around the concept of objectionable are introduced we don’t know what we will lose access to and bluntly, we live in an age where technology is helping people get around those filters in ways that is becoming increasingly difficult to address.

The Bill is now open for submissions and I encourage you to read the facts and write to the Committee with your views. This is not a bill about online harm, it’s really the start of the next national debate on Free Speech and Censorship in New Zealand.

Be a part of it.

MELISSA LEE MP
National Member of Parliament
National Spokesperson for – Broadcasting & Media| Digital Economy and Communications | Ethnic Communities

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