Tech Liberty NZ Defending civil liberties in the digital age

Government to turn ISPs into censors

Posted on October 5, 2010

The Government is to tighten up the rules around court-ordered name suppression. The proposed changes are in response to the Law Commission's report recommending that the rules around suppression need to be clarified and that suppression should be harder to get.

Of concern to Tech Liberty is the following from the Cabinet Paper (PDF):

that it be an offence where an onshore internet service provider or content host becomes aware that they are hosting information that they know is in breach of a suppression order, and they fail to block access or remove it as soon as is reasonable practicable;

While on the face it this does not seem completely unreasonable, the devil is in the details:

  • Defining exactly what an Internet Service Provider is turns out to be difficult - and is something that the copyright legislation has also struggled with. Does it include a library or cafe providing free internet? What about a publicly shared connection from someone's house? How about ISPs that are only providing wholesale bandwidth to other ISPs - which is responsible?
  • What duties do ISPs have to police content hosted on their networks by their customers? What if the server is under the control of the customer and the ISP is only providing internet bandwidth and power?
  • How will ISPs and content hosts be able to tell whether material is in breach of a suppression order or not? What if the material is only hinting at the identity - does the ISP have to decide whether it's enough to qualify as a breach and take it down?
  • What does "block access or remove it" mean in practice? If ISPs have no admin access to the server hosting the website (as is common when they host other company's servers), will they be forced to take down entire websites or multi-site web-servers to remove a comment posted on a blog?

ISPs as judge/jury/executioner

We fear that this new law will be a repeat of the debacle around changes to the copyright act - trying to force ISPs into having to make complex legal decisions simply because no one else can do it.

It was wrong to make ISPs judge and punish people for breaches of copyright, it's equally wrong to make them judge and punish people for breaches of suppression orders.

Future of suppression

Ultimately, the law changes may be largely pointless once the ease of publishing information on the internet anywhere in the world is taken into account.

We look forward to seeing the final text of the bill and expect that we will be making a submission.


See also Rick Shera's blog post.

Posted by Thomas Beagle

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. As you know, maybe 90% of NZ sites are hosted offshore, not because of any desire to avoid the authorities, but just because it’s cheaper and easier. IANAL, but I doubt the NZ justice department is likely to be able to litigate Google for an offence with no equivalent in US law?

    • My current understanding is that the Law Commission recognises the foolishness of trying to control/block material hosted overseas (although as WhaleOil found out, that doesn’t work if you’re publishing it from NZ). Therefore this will only be aimed at material on servers hosted by local ISPs.

      Of course, we’re waiting to see the text of the bill when it’s presented to Parliament.


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