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New Zealand set to join internet blocking club

Concerns over oversight and spying on users

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New Zealand is preparing to join the list of internet blockers. From last week, New Zealanders who want to know what is in store for them can access a useful new online resource - "the Compleat Thomas Beagle" - which includes a FAQ providing in-depth coverage of political and technological issues involved.

At present, New Zealand has no official internet blocking, although possession and publication of obscene material is covered under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993. Responsibility for policing what goes on to the internet falls to the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), who have largely been concerned with material featuring the abuse of children or sex with animals.

Once blocking goes live, the DIA claim that the block list will focus exclusively on the first of these categories: it is reported that the DIA’s Censorship Compliance Unit has developed a list of over 7000 sites containing child pornography. If true, this is an interestingly large figure, being about five times the size of the block list maintained by the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation, and significantly larger than the lists put in place over the last year or so by other European nations.

Two features of the DIA’s approach are likely to excite controversy. The first is the degree of oversight carried out in respect of the DIA’s work. As debate over internet censorship grows, the question that continues to be put to governments and law enforcement is how they can re-assure the public that blocked sites fall within legitimate law enforcement criteria.

The line of "trust me: I’m a police officer" is not one that inspires great public confidence.

To date, the DIA has refused to publish their list, claiming, via the Official Information Act, that to do so would be "likely to prejudice the maintenance of the law, including the prevention, investigation, and detection of offences, and the right to a fair trial".

Initially, the block list will be voluntary: ISP’s may choose whether or not to take it. Where ISP’s do choose to make use of the service – facilitated via Netclean Whitebox - a routing protocol will inform them that the "best" way to the internet address of the banned site’s web server is through the DIA’s filtering server.

Where an individual requests access to a banned site, the DIA server may refuse the request and bounce a message back. There is some facility for individuals to object to the site being blocked: since the list runs at internet address level, a number of sites may be blocked that host perfectly legitimate content.

At present, there is no agreement on whether or not to refer the names of individuals attempting to access blocked sites to law enforcement. This is the second issue likely to prove controversial: it was proposed recently in respect of laws passed to block access to similar material in Germany – and legislators decided that such a move would be a step too far.

New Zealand has still to make up its mind.

The Department of Internal Affairs has budgeted an additional $617,000 for Censorship Enforcement Activities for the 2009/2010 financial year, including $150,000 for internet filtering software.

ISP’s that have already said they will participate in this scheme include hug, Watchdog, Maxnet and TelstraClear. Telecom (Xtra) and Vodafone have also expressed interest. This would mean that blocking would apply to around 94% of the New Zealand internet on the day it goes live. ®

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