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DIA revamps Internet filter Code of Practice

Posted on January 21, 2010

The Department of Internal Affairs have released a new version of the Code of Practice (PDF) for their proposed Internet filtering system, as well as the initial membership of the Independent Reference Group (PDF).

Independent Reference Group (IRG)

The initial members of the Independent Reference Group are:

  • Nic McCully - Deputy Chief Censor
  • Nic Johnstone - Office of the Children's Commissioner
  • Steve O'Brien - Manager, Censorship Compliance Unit, Department of Internal Affairs
  • Mark Harris - Independent
  • Andrew Bowater - Government Relations Manager, Telecom
  • Duncan Campbell - Deputy Editor, Netguide

The makeup of the group is less than ideal.

Firstly, the bizarre inclusion of Steve O'Brien, the manager in charge of implementing the Internet filter, into what is meant to be an Independent Reference Group is surely a mistake. It completely undermines the independence of the Group.

Secondly, the lack of a representative from Internet NZ is disappointing as they are the only organisation with the stated aim of protecting and promoting the Internet in New Zealand.

Thirdly, there seems to be no representation from the Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The Telecom representative might be expected to provide that, but in that case they surely wouldn't have chosen the Government Relations Manager.

Finally, when dealing with issues of censorship we think it is appropriate that there be a representative from one a group dedicated to human rights and/or civil liberties.

Role of the Independent Reference Group

The main change in the new Code of Practice is the increased detail about the role of the Independent Reference Group. Their main job will still be reviewing the appeal decisions made by the DIA, but the code now explains what information they will have access to:

  • The inspector's reports that are used to justify adding a site to the list.
  • Details of all appeal applications and the action taken.
  • Reports of any technical issues
  • "such other information that may lawfully be provided to assist the IRG in fulfilling its function"

The IRG will meet quarterly and prepare an annual report. They are to meet their own meeting costs, but there is no mention of whether they will be paid for their participation.

Access to the List

A more promising development (section 4.7) is that "all additions and deletions to the filtering list will be reported to the next meeting of the IRG". This seems to be saying that the IRG will get to review the sites added to the list.

We have argued strongly that the contents of the list should be opened up for the purpose of oversight. This clause goes a long way to addressing that requirement, by letting some people who are not part of the Censorship Compliance Unit review what sites are being added to the list.

Appeals Process

We note with disappointment that the appeals process (anyone going to a blocked site can request that the blocking be reviewed) is still anonymous, meaning that the DIA has no requirement to justify their censorship decision to the person directly affected by it.

Summary

When comparing Internet filtering systems worldwide it is apparent that the scheme proposed by the DIA is one of the least offensive ones to defenders of the Internet and civil liberties. The opening up of the list to the Independent Reference Group is an important step in the evolution of the system towards accountability and openness (although there are still questions around the makeup of the IRG).

That said, Tech Liberty still opposes the implementation of the Internet filter:

  • We oppose the Government being able to intercept and search private communications without a warrant.
  • We fear that no Government, given this tool, will be able to resist extending it further in response to moral panic or other political pressure.
  • No matter how well administered it is, there remains the fundamental problem that the filter won't stop the production and distribution of child pornography.

About Thomas Beagle

Co-founder and spokesperson for Tech Liberty
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