Tech Liberty NZ Defending civil liberties in the digital age

HDC Bill reported back by the Select Committee

Posted on May 27, 2014

The Harmful Digital Communications Bill has been reported back and the select committee has made a few changes.

Significant changes

The Bill has added the definition of IPAP (Internet Protocol Address Provider - roughly an internet service provider) from section 122A(1) of the Copyright Act and then in section 17(2A) gives the District Court the ability to order an IPAP to release the identity of an anonymous communicator to the court. Of course, this would only reveal the name of the person who owns the internet account that was used and not the name of the person who used it, so the utility of this will be limited.

The Approved Agency (still unnamed, still expected to be Netsafe) would be subject to the Ombudsmen Act, the Official Information Act and the Public Records Act in respect of the functions performed under the bill. This is a welcome change as it's important that any agency performing state functions is covered by the bills that help provide proper oversight.

There have also been minor changes allowing the courts to vary orders made previously, clearing up which teachers can apply on behalf of pupils, and allowing threats to be treated as possible grounds for an order to be made.

Safe harbour improvements

The major change has been to the section 20 Safe Harbour provisions of the Bill that were dumped into the previous version at the last minute.

The original proposal was terrible - content hosts (pretty well anyone who allows the public to submit comments such as on a blog or forum) would be protected from legal action if they removed material immediately after receiving a complaint. It was obvious that this would be abused by those trying to silence people who they disagreed with.

The good news is that some complaints will be changed from "takedown on notice" to "notice and notice". This means that upon receiving a complaint, the content host will forward it to the original author of the complained about material (i.e. the person who wrote the comment). If the author agrees or doesn't respond, the material will be taken down, but if they disagree with the complaint the material will be left up - and the content host will still be protected from legal action under the safe harbour.

However, this does not apply when the original author cannot be identified (or if the author either doesn't want to respond or can't respond within the 48 hour time limit). Indeed, the phrasing of the act reads as if content hosts must remove material when in reality they only need do so if they wish to be protected by the safe harbour provisions.

Disturbingly a number of other suggested improvements were not picked up by the select committee. In particular we supported the ideas that complainants should have to make their complaint a sworn statement and that complainants would have to have been harmed by the material themselves.

So while this is a significant improvement, we still fear that these provisions will be abused by serial complainers, internet busybodies and those who want to suppress their "online enemies" by any means possible.

What hasn't changed

What's more serious is what hasn't changed. You can read our articles and submissions to see our full critique of the Bill but there are three points we wish to mention.

Firstly, the Bill sets a different standard for the content of speech online and offline. While we do understand that online communications might require a different approach in available remedies, we firmly believe that the standard of speech should be the same. We note that the internet isn't only for "nice" speech, it's increasingly the place where we all exercise the freedom of expression guaranteed to us by the NZ Bill of Rights Act.

Secondly, rather than fixing the horribly broken section 19 - causing harm by posting digital communication - the penalties have been increased. This section completely fails to recognise that some harmful communications have real value to society. For example, the idea that someone might be fined or jailed because they harmed a politician by posting online proof that the politician was corrupt is just horrendous. We honestly believed that the lack of a public interest or BORA test was a mistake but it seems that the Select Committee really does want to criminalise all harmful online speech. This neutered and ineffectual internet is not one we wish to see.

Thirdly, we worry that the bill will be ineffectual where it might be needed most while being most effective where it's most problematic to civil liberties. Many of the example harms mentioned in the original Law Commission report would not be helped by this Bill - they happen overseas, or they happen too fast, or the people being harmed are just too scared to tell anyone anyway. The Approved Agency will be able to do a lot in the cases where anything can be done, but we're not convinced of the need for the more coercive elements of the Bill.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that some people are being harmed by online communications. There is definitely a good argument to be made that the government could do something useful to help those people. We're not convinced that the approach taken by the Law Commission and the Government is effective and we're quite sure that it includes a number of unreasonable restrictions on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed to us all by the NZ Bill of Rights Act.

It seems inevitable that the Bill will be passed in its current form if there's time before Parliament closes for the elections. We can but hope that a future government will repeal it and have another go.

HDC Bill: oral submission

Posted on March 26, 2014

We made an oral submission to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee about the Harmful Digital Communications Bill as a follow-up to our written submission.

This oral submission concentrated on two misconceptions that we see as underpinning the bill: that speech should never harm anyone, and that different rules should apply to speech online and offline.

We then discussed problems with the effectiveness of the bill - and how it might not be that useful for victims of digital harms but might be quite handy for people who want to suppress the views of others.

Submission: Harmful Digital Communications Bill

Posted on February 21, 2014

Text of the Tech Liberty submission to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee concerning the Harmful Digital Communications Bill. (Or download PDF of original version with footnotes.)

Summary

We believe that this Bill is based on false premises about the nature of freedom of expression and the differences between digital and non-digital speech. We see the Bill as being a well-meaning but misguided threat to the civil liberties of New Zealanders. We fear that the Bill will be ineffective in too many cases where it might be needed most, while being too effective in the cases which are most problematic to civil liberties.

We support the establishment of an agency to assist those harmed by harmful communications and believe that this will go a long way to resolving the types of situations that can be resolved.

We believe that the court proceedings are unfair and unlikely to be of much use. We support the discretion and guidelines given to the court in making a judgement, but believe that the procedures of the court need to better take into account the requirements for a fair trial.

The safe harbour provisions for online content hosts are unreasonable. While online content hosts do need protection from liability, the suggested mechanism amounts to a way that any person can get material taken down that they don’t like for any trivial reason. This section needs to be completely rethought in the context of overseas experiences to ensure that freedom of expression is properly protected.

The new offence of causing harm is poorly conceived and criminalises many communications that are of value to society. If not removed in its entirety, defences and an overriding Bill of Rights veto should be added.

We have also made comments on the changes to the Harassment and Crimes Acts.

HDC Bill and criminalising free speech

Posted on February 1, 2014

As part of our ongoing look at elements of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill (general critique and safe harbours), we now turn to the new offence of causing harm by posting digital communication (section 19). This is a criminal offence and is not related to the rest of the bill with its 10 principles, Approved Agency and quick-fire District Court remedies. It's quite simple:

(1) A person commits an offence if:

  1. the person posts a digital communication with the intention that it cause harm to a victim; and
  2. posting the communication would cause harm to an ordinary reasonable person in the position of the victim; and
  3. posting the communication causes harm to the victim.

"harm" is defined in the interpretation section as "serious emotional distress".

Unfortunately this new offence is actually very wide and may well capture many communications that are of immense value to society - or at least shouldn't be made illegal.

Let's consider the case where someone takes a photo of a politician receiving a bribe and, shocked at their corruption, posts that photo to the internet. This communication would:

  1. be posted with the intention of harming the victim (the prospect of facing criminal charges or being obliged to resign could be assumed to cause the victim distress).
  2. would cause harm to any reasonable person in the position of the victim (any reasonable person would not like having evidence of their criminal corruption exposed to the world).
  3. could be easily proved to have caused harm (serious emotional distress) to the victim.

The penalty? Up to 3 months in jail or a fine not exceeding $2000.

In section 19(2) the judge gets some guidelines about how to assess whether the communication causes harm, but nowhere is there the idea that some communications that cause harm might actually have some societal value or would otherwise come under freedom of expression. There are no available defences such as that the communication may be in the public interest, counts as fair comment, or exposes criminal wrongdoing.

And just in case you thought that whether the communication is true or not should matter, section 19(4)(a) clarifies that "...or otherwise communicates by means of a digital communication any information, whether truthful or untruthful, about the victim;"

This is obviously a terrible law and will have a detrimental effect on freedom of expression and public discourse in New Zealand. How will our journalists and citizen journalists be able to expose wrong doing when broadcasting it on electronic media such as the internet, radio or TV is a criminal act if it hurts the wrong-doer's feelings?

This law wouldn't be acceptable if it applied to speech in a newspaper, it's not acceptable online.

Section 19 isn't complete worthless - it also criminalises the communication of "intimate visual recordings" in an attempt to harm someone. This seems worth keeping but the parts of section 19 concerning speech need to be either removed or significantly modified to protect freedom of expression.

Safe harbours in HDC Bill are a threat to freedom of expression

Posted on November 21, 2013

The safe harbour provisions in the Harmful Digital Communications Bill are a serious threat to online freedom of speech in New Zealand.

How it works

Anyone can complain to an online content host (someone who has control over a website) that some material submitted by an external user on their site is unlawful, harmful or otherwise objectionable. The online content host must then make a choice:

  1. Remove the content and thereby qualify for immunity from civil or criminal action.
  2. Leave the content up and be exposed to civil or criminal liability.

The content host has to make its own determination about whether a piece of given content is unlawful (which may be very difficult when it comes to subjective issues such as defamation and impossible to determine when it concerns legal suppression), harmful or "otherwise objectionable".

Furthermore, there is:

  • No oversight of the process from any judicial or other agency.
  • No requirement for the content host to tell the person who originally posted the content that it has been deleted.
  • No provision for any appeal by the content host or the person who originally posted the material.
  • No penalty for people making false or unreasonable claims.

We can safely assume that most content hosts will tend to play it safe, especially if they're large corporates with risk-averse legal teams, and will take down material when requested. They have nothing to gain and plenty to lose by leaving complained about material online.

Serious ramifications for freedom of speech

Don't like what someone has said about you online? Send in a complaint and wait for it to be taken down.

This applies to comments on blogs, forums on auction sites, user-supplied content on news media sites, etc, etc. These are exactly the places where a lot of important speech occurs including discussions about politics and the issues of the day. The debates can often be heated, and some sites are well known for encouraging intemperate speech, but these discussions are becoming and increasingly important part of our national discourse.

This law will make it too easy for someone to stop arguing and start making complaints, thereby suppressing the freedom of expression of those they disagree with.

The jurisdiction problem

Of course, this will only apply to websites that are controlled by people who have a legal presence in New Zealand. Overseas websites will continue to maintain their own rules and ignore New Zealand law and standards of online behaviour.

Conclusion

As currently written, these safe harbour provisions are just a bad idea. They're too open to abuse and we believe they're more likely to be used to suppress acceptable speech than to eliminate harmful or "otherwise objectionable" speech. As a very minimum, the complaint should have to be approved by the Approved Agency referred to in the other parts of the Bill.

That said, the whole idea of removing "otherwise objectionable" speech is also quite worrying. The Harmful Digital Communications Bill already has an expansive set of rules about what sort of harmful speech shouldn't be allowed online and this "otherwise objectionable" seems to extend it even further. One of the principles we stand up for here is that civil liberties such as freedom of expression are as important online as they are offline, and this law goes far beyond anything in the offline world.

We hope to have more comment and analysis on other aspects of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill soon.

DIA now filtering .. Google?

Posted on May 29, 2013

Update 1st August 2013

The DIA have now confirmed that they did filter some sites hosted by Google and that this caused problems for both the filter and some internet users.

Officials provided an oral briefing on the incident reported regarding a degradation of service noted by some users of certain services. The Filter Operations Team worked with the provider of those services in question. It was discovered that hentai and cgi based child abuse sites hosted on the blogspot.com domain, a resource operated by Google Inc were included in the list in error.These sites were then shown to the IRG. It was then explained that a list refresh, removed the sites in question, and subsequently resolved this issue.

The problem was further compounded by the severe congestion in the networks of one of the upstream providers used by the system. A review of the Filter’s failsafe systems was undertaken. Steps have been added to ensure that the IPs of large hosting providers are flagged and placed on a white list with a reporting mechanism for the removal of the content from the site. Additional resources were requested from the upstream provider in question to ensure traffic congestion can be avoided in the future.



Back in 2011 we spotted the first indications of how the Department of Internal Affairs Internet filter, used by 90% of all New Zealand Internet connections, actually operates. At the time, we noticed an address - 124.150.165.62 - appearing where it shouldn't in traceroutes to a site.

Performance Problems

Now that same address has popped up in traces to Google addresses, specifically googlehosted.l.googleusercontent.com (74.125.237.11). As noted in this thread on Geekzone, some people have  been experiencing performance problems reaching some Google services.

These performance problems could be caused by a Google-load of traffic to that IP being routed to the DIA's filtering server which may not be coping with the volume. Note that the filter will only be blocking one web address (URL) at that IP and letting the rest of the traffic through.

Of course this won't affect you if you are using an ISP that doesn't use the filter. Check the list of ISPs here.

Making the link

As noted back in 2011, the address appearing in traces where they shouldn't be are controlled by Fastcom, who list the Department of Internet Affairs as an important customer and which they host infrastructure for.

Filtering problems

This was always one of the fears when the filter was introduced - that it would reduce the stability and performance of the New Zealand internet. It appears that this has now happened. Two questions:

  1. Will the DIA remove the entry for this IP now that they realise the problems it's causing?
  2. How will the DIA block web addresses hosted at high volume websites such as Google (or Wikipedia) when the filter can't cope?

Seeking more information

Have you been experiencing any issues accessing Google? Can you provide a traceroute for us? Post a comment below.

Rumours and hearsay

Thanks to the people who contacted us with more information, we just wish you were prepared to speak on the record. So far we have heard the following from people that we typically find to be reliable:

  1. That the DIA has denied filtering that IP address.
  2. That a senior ISP engineer says that the IP address was definitely filtered by the DIA filter and that they have seen the relevant BGP records.
  3. That the filtering of at least one Google IP address has been removed but that there might be more.
  4. That Google was greatly annoyed by the block and contacted the Minister to get it removed.

We'll update these rumours as we can confirm/deny them. Please email any information to thomas@techliberty.org.nz. We will do our best to keep your name confidential if requested, but suggest using an anonymous remailer for the best anonymity.

Useful links re the Law Commission’s Digital Harms report

Posted on September 10, 2012

A summary of articles and other information about the Law Commissions Harmful Digital Communications report (PDF) and the associated Communications (New Media) Bill (PDF).

Please send any updates or other useful links and we'll incorporate them. Last updated: 10/9/2012.

Tech Liberty

Lawyer Steven Price

Lawyer John Edwards

Stephen Bell at Computerworld

Mike O'Donnell from Trademe at Stuff

David Farrar at Kiwiblog

Chris Barton at NZ Herald

Media 3

Richard Boock at Stuff

Netsafe

InternetNZ

Police Minister Judith Collins

What’s wrong with the Communications (New Media) Bill and can it be fixed?

Posted on September 2, 2012

The Law Commission's proposed Communications (New Media) Bill (PDF) is the result of their report on Harmful Digital Communications. They are proposing:

  • The creation of a new criminal offence that targets digital communications which are "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character and which cause harm". Harm is said to include physical fear, humiliation, mental and emotional distress.
  • The establishment of an Agency (i.e. Netsafe) that will be able to assist and advise people suffering from unpleasant digital communications.
  • The establishment of a Communications Tribunal that will be able to respond to complaints and provide "speedy, efficient and cheap access to remedies such as takeown orders and cease & desist notices."
  • Amendments to the Harassment Act, Human Rights Act, Privacy Act and Crimes Act to ensure that the provisions of these laws can be applied to digital communications.
  • New requirements for NZ schools to work harder at stopping bullying of all kinds.

While sympathetic to the aims, we have some serious questions about the law and the thinking that lies behind it. This article discusses some of the problems that we see, talks about ways to resolve them and asks whether the problems are too great for some parts to be worth pursuing. We have arranged our arguments thematically and finish with our conclusions and recommendations.

Powers of the proposed Communications Tribunal

Posted on August 20, 2012

The Law Commission has proposed the creation of a Communications Tribunal that will be able to respond to complaints about internet speech and provide "speedy, efficient and cheap access to remedies such as takeown orders and cease & desist notices." The Tribunal would be made up of one of a number of selected District Court judges, with the optional assistance of a technical expert where required.

We were curious to see how what powers the proposed Bill would give the Communications Tribunal and how that would compare to the other tribunals mentioned in the report.

A future article will discuss the types of complaints that the Tribunal will deal with and the principles they are to use when doing so.

What powers would this Communications Tribunal have?

Once a complaint has been made and accepted by the Tribunal, they have certain investigatory powers:

  • require any person to provide any document, information or things
  • require any person (including the defendant) to give evidence.

Once the Tribunal has made the decision ("...with as little formality and technicality, and as speedily as is permitted...") it can order one or more of the following:

  • remove any material from any online media
  • forbid anyone from republishing or encouraging others to republish the same or similar material
  • demand a correction, an apology or the right of reply
  • publicly identify the author of a particular communication.

If the demand to produce/give evidence or any of these orders are disobeyed it would be punishable by up to 3 months jail and/or a $5000 fine.

Compared to other tribunals

In the Ministerial Briefing, they compare the Communications Tribunal to other tribunals such as the Tenancy Tribunal, Human Rights Review Tribunal and the Disputes Tribunal.

Firstly, we note that there is a major difference between the Tenancy and Dispute Tribunals (where the tribunal is arbitrating an existing agreement between two parties) and the Communications and Human Rights Review Tribunals where there is no pre-existing agreement between the people involved. This means that we think the Human Rights Review Tribunal is a better subject for comparison.

Secondly, disobeying any orders from the other tribunals does not result in a jail sentence but rather fines of between $1500 and $5000. The ability to back its decisions with a threatened 3 month jail sentence is is a major difference in the powers of the Communications Tribunal.

Thirdly, the laws for the other tribunals are much more detailed as to how they are to perform their work. There are procedures, clarifications of who can appear and when, oath-taking, rights of appearance and notification, etc, etc. The proposed Bill is either unfinished or the Law Commission really does seem to want hearings to be a quick and dirty affair, something that may not be appropriate when talking about issues that have important Bill of Rights implications.

Fourthly, the other tribunals do have some powers to order evidence and testimony - but legally privileged information is protected and the Human Rights Review Tribunal is subject to the Evidence Act.

Is there any defence/appeal?

There is no requirement for the defendant to be heard or to have a chance to put their case forward. (Lawyer John Edwards counters this by saying that the Tribunal's requirement to comply with the principles of natural justice would require that affected parties be given an opportunity to be heard.)

The complainant can appeal a decision to an Appeal Tribunal (made up of two District Court judges).

The defendant has no opportunity to appeal any decision, nor do other possible targets of an order (the ISP, webhost or 'any other person').

Conclusion

The Communications Tribunal would have very broad powers over internet content. Breaching one of their orders will result in a serious fine of up to $5000 or jail time of up to three months. This contrasts with the report stating that it would be "protective, rather than punitive" and would "not have powers to impose criminal sanctions". If you refuse to follow the orders (possibly because you believe they are unfair, breach your freedom of expression, or because it's technically impossible) you'll find that punitive criminal sanctions quickly follow.

The Law Commission repeatedly mentions that the Tribunal should be "speedy" and "efficient" with "little formality". The proposed Bill is very light on detail when it comes to the nitty gritty of running a Tribunal - presumably with the thought that this would just slow them down. They seem to be of the view that the Tribunal must react in "internet time" without quite realising that a result in days or even hours probably won't be good enough to avoid harm to the complainant.

The cases coming before the Tribunal are not always going to be easy, with internet flamewars and inter-clique battles typically leading to bad behaviour from all of the parties that will need to be unpicked properly to make a fair decision.

This lack of process and protection for the rights of the defendant to a fair hearing (including the right to silence) will surely lead to bad decisions that fail to take into account the principles of natural justice.

Moreover, the Tribunal is dealing with a very serious matter, the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the NZ Bill of Rights. This is not some petty dispute over who pays for the repairs to a car or whether the oven was cleaned properly on vacating a flat. The level of formality and respect to the rights of the participants is very different between the Communications Tribunal and the more directly comparable Human Rights Review Tribunal.

We believe that, even before you consider the grounds for complaining to the Communications Tribunal and the principles it will follow to make decisions, there are some serious problems with the Tribunal as conceived by the Law Commission. The proposed remedies are too expansive, the penalties for disobeying too harsh and the unseemly haste that will go into making a decision is not appropriate.


This post has been corrected on 22/8/2012 to clarify that only the complainant, not the defendant, can appeal an order of the Tribunal.

Law Commission – Harmful Digital Communications

Posted on August 14, 2012

The Law Commission has released Harmful Digital Communications (PDF) - the rushed report into the "adequacy of current sanctions and remedies". According to the summary they are proposing:

  1. The creation of a new criminal offence that targets digital communications which are "grossly offensive or of an indence, obscene or menacing character and which cause harm". Harm is said to include physical fear, humiliation, mental and emotional distress.
  2. The establishment of a Communications Tribunal that will be able to respond to complaints and provide "speedy, efficient and cheap access to remedies such as takeown orders and cease & desist notices." It is also envisioned that Netsafe would take a larger role in being a first port of call for people seeking help.
  3. Amendments to the Harassment Act, Human Rights Act, Privacy Act and Crimes Act to ensure that the provisions of these laws can be applied to digital communications.
  4. New requirements for NZ schools to work harder at stopping bullying of all kinds.

The last two of these seem innocuous so our response will concentrate on the first two.

New "digital communications" offence

While it is undoubtedly true that the internet has allowed people to be nasty to each other on a wider scale than before, we are still not convinced that new laws are needed.

This is especially true when the Commission believes that the law should forbid offensive speech that has only got as far as causing someone "significant emotional distress", a rather low bar when adolescents or other excitable people are involved. (The Commission acknowledges that this goes beyond the current bounds of NZ criminal and civil law.)

We are also concerned when it is proposed to make something illegal on the internet that wouldn't be illegal if it was published in some other way. Does it really make sense that the same message might be legal on a billboard in the middle of Auckland but illegal if it was then posted to the Trademe Forums? As we say in our founding principles, "We believe that our civil liberties don't just disappear when using the internet."

It seems like that the new law will mainly be used as just another threat/weapon by people already engaged in internet battles.

All in all, we view this proposed new law with suspicion and fear that it will limit freedom of expression and cause more problems than it solves.

Establishment of a Communications Tribunal

It is always a concern when a new body with the power to censor is created, epecially when it is envisioned that it should be "speedy, efficient and cheap". When you realise that it's going to be tasked with censoring communications on the global internet, you have to wonder just what they were thinking.

Even reading the summary paper you get the feeling that the Law Commission doesn't think the Communications Tribunal is going to do much good, citing problems with identifying people and establishing jurisdiction overseas. Obviously it's only really going to have jurisdiction in New Zealand and this is just going to drive people's nastiness offshore.

Furthermore, the Tribunal will consist of one of a number of selected District Court judges, and they're going to have the power to order ISPs and web administrators to take down content. This can be significantly more difficult than it sounds and seems like a significant threat to freedom of expression, especially in those cases where the original author cannot be found therefore cannot defend themselves.

The Communications Tribunal seems to be a "at least we tried" measure, doomed to failure in all but a very narrow range of cases. We question whether it is worth doing at all.


We look forward to reading the full report and the proposed legislation and giving a fuller response when this is available.