Last week we announced that the New Zealand internet filter had “gone live” and was now being used to filter the connections for users of two ISPs (Watchdog and Maxnet), with more expected to follow.
The obvious question has to be, why was Tech Liberty announcing something that the Department of Internal Affairs had done? Where was their announcement that the filter had gone live on the 1st of February? Don’t civil servants have a duty to communicate to the people that they serve?
Sadly this reticence with information has been typical of the Department of Internal Affairs in relation to the implementation of the Internet filter.
Deleting Public Records
Last year we used the Official Information Act to ask for copies of the reports that the inspectors has used to justify banning the websites on the list. The DIA refused. After we appealed this refusal to the Ombudsman, the DIA then said that those records had been deleted and therefore it was impossible for them to give them to us anyway. The Department has an obligation under the Public Records Act to keep such information.
We complained to the Chief Archivist, who investigated and confirmed that the DIA had deleted public records without permission. He told us that the DIA has promised to do better in the future, but naturally this didn’t help us access the missing records.
The Secret Go-Live Date
Why has the DIA been so secretive about the filter going into operation? Here’s two examples where we believe that they have failed to be open and honest about what they are doing, even in response to direct questions.
We wrote to the DIA and asked them, again, when the filter was going to go live. They wrote back on January the 20th and said that as they were about to make an announcement, the Official Information Act gave them grounds to refuse our request. This was 11 days before Watchdog was the first ISP to start using the filter. It’s now the 16th of March, nearly two months later, and there’s still no announcement from the DIA.
Secondly, on February the 15th we rang Keith Manch, Deputy Secretary of Internal Affairs, and directly asked him when the filter was going live. Keith is responsible for Regulation and Compliance and has been heavily involved in the implementation of the filter. Did he admit that the filter had gone into operation two weeks earlier? No, he carefully took note of our questions and then wrote in a follow-up email that as we had already asked those questions by letter he wouldn’t answer. We finally got our answer on March the 8th, admitting that the system had gone live on February the 1st.
Open and Democratic Government
Tech Liberty is at the intersection of technology and civil liberties. We are strong supporters of the right to self-rule as expressed through democratic government. An important element of democratic government is the principle that government must be open and accountable, as without this governments tend to become corrupt and self-serving.
New Zealand recognises this and the Official Information Act and Public Records Acts are some of the ways we use to ensure that our government remains open and accountable. However, the law isn’t enough on its own, it also requires a commitment from government departments to honour the spirit of the law and not try to use or misuse the letter of it to conceal information.
We don’t believe that the Department of Internal Affairs has been living up to this standard when it comes to the issue of internet filtering.