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R vs Internet – First Session

Posted on December 3, 2009

I'm at the R v Internet seminar in Wellington today. As some of the issues discussed are quite important in terms of Tech Liberty (right to a fair trial, Internet censorship, freedom of speech) I'll be giving a brief write-up of the event.

The Old Guard

So far we have heard from the Attorney General Chris Finlayson, Law Professor Tony Smith from VUW and the Solicitor General, David Collins.

Everyone agrees that the Internet provides a serious challenge to our established procedures and principles for holding trials. In particular:

  • The Internet defeats suppression of names and evidence.
  • Jurors can use the Internet to find information and do their own research.
  • Internet commentators do not feel constrained in their ability to discuss current cases or verdicts.

Everyone further agrees that this is a threat to the right to a fair trial.

Chris Finlayson, attorney general, didn't really have anything interesting to say or any ideas about what to do about it.

Tony Smith, in a theme echoed by others, his main concern for Internet publication was the "bloggers". He didn't seem to understand that the Internet is not just a new way for some people, the bloggers, to publish, but is a new way for everyone to publish. He suggested that it might be possible for a court-appointed official to pre-emptively sweep the Internet clean of prejudicial before a trial (the *entire* Internet?).

David Collins, solicitor general, says it's a time-concerning issue for him as he is concerned with the right to a fair trial. However, governments are at a disadvantage as they are under-resourced and technically out of date. Then proceeded to give a useful discussion of some of the issues with reference to cases around the world.

Unfortunately he has the same problems as the first two speakers in that he seems to assume that something can be done. A passing comment approves of the Law Commission's plan to set up a giant Internet censorship scheme, and he talks about the possiblity of getting international agreements or treaties in an attempt to enforce the orders of NZ courts around the world (would NZ then have to accept orders of Chinese or US courts?).

In summary, these people know a lot about why they wish to support the principles of contempt, but I don't think any of them really understand that their opinions may not actually matter in the face of the Internet.

Posted by Thomas Beagle

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  1. Thank you for the summary! The attitudes of these three don’t inspire much confidence. I wonder, though, why they’re so focussed on the impossible—rolling back freedom and censoring the Internet—and not working on practical solutions instead. For example, if jurors accessing the Internet is a problem, why not sequester jurors as they do in other countries? Expensive, but actually possible, unlike their weird solutions.

  2. There was a brief discussion of sequestering jurors – but the general perception is that jury duty is onerous enough and if we make it worse the diversity of people on the jury will fall. As Judge Harvey put it, it’ll be only the old page pensioners and the dole queue.


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