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New Zealand bolts net filtering regime into place

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If you thought that net filtering and grandiose firewalls were the exclusive preserve of West Island (or "Australia", as the locals like to call it), think again. New Zealand is showing that it, too, is ready to play its part in the great Antipodean censorship stakes.

Last week, the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) announced it was setting up a filter system that will allow internet service providers to stop people accessing child pornography.

The filter system has already been trialled in hundreds of thousands of New Zealand households, and Internal Affairs deputy secretary Keith Manch confirmed that the voluntary system will block access to around 7000 websites carrying images of child sexual abuse.

As always, with such systems, there are concerns that this power could be abused: internet Safety group NetSafe welcomed the move, while warning that there could be concerns if the department later used the filter to block a wider variety of websites.

Manch denies that any such plans exist and stressed that the filter is only for targeting the sexual abuse of children. The department is now finalising its analysis of the trial and will be discussing with internet providers how to implement the system.

So is New Zealand following its nearest neighbour into internet overkill?

The possibility exists, but given the New Zealand track record on censorship to date, it seems unlikely. The legal framework governing internet content in New Zealand is the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, as amended by the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Amendment Act 2005 (pdf).

Outwardly, this Act is quite draconian, combining in one law almost every bit of censorship that the UK has erected piecemeal over the last ten years. The Law makes it an offence to to possess or trade in "objectionable" publications.

"Objectionable" is broadly defined as: "a publication...(that) describes, depicts or expresses, or otherwise deals with matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence in such a manner that the availablity of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good."

Although the law does not specifically reference the internet, officials claim that it does cover online publication.

Not only has New Zealand managed to bring together in one Act the concepts of possession and publication – now governed by entirely separate law in the UK. They have also pulled together child abuse, violent or coercive sex, terrorism and race hatred into the same legal bucket. That is a very neat approach, allowing for a remarkable consistency of policing.

In practice, however, the DIA focus tends to be mostly on those involved in the distribution or possession of child porn.

A good comparative evaluation of internet censorship in New Zealand and Australia can be found at the Open Net resource, here. Both have official bodies with powers to investigate and police the internet – although New Zealand lacks the power to order a formal takedown of websites.

Meanwhile, cybersafety education for all New Zealanders - children, parents, schools, community organisations and businesses – is provided in a highly positive fashion by independent non-profit organisation, NetSafe.

As debate on the shape of internet regulation in the UK hots up, the New Zealand model is one that is worth examining. The legal framework offers a clarity now almost wholly absent from the UK.

NetSafe looks to be much closer to the spirit of the Byron Review, which called for a calmer, more inclusive response to the challenges of the internet than our current mindset which appears to be locked into an obsession with control, either through blocking and takedown (the Internet Watch Foundation) or film-style classification and a regulatory body to police content. ®

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