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DIA online censorship regime DOA

On Friday, it was announced – albeit rather quietly, and therefore barely reported – the Department of Internal Affairs [DIA] has abandoned its proposal to radically overhaul the way the online and media content Kiwis can access is regulated.

As covered in this column last July, if the initiative had gone on to become a law, it would’ve resulted in an unelected, unaccountable ‘regulator’ getting to decide – without legislative scrutiny – what you and I would be allowed to read, watch, listen to, and even write, in order to minimise what was largely hypothetical and undefined “harm”.

However, in the face of 20,281 submissions – the vast majority of which were against the proposal – the DIA has waved the white flag.

“The Department of Internal Affairs will not be progressing with the Safer Online Services and Media Platforms programme,” a DIA spokesperson has stated, adding that it wasn’t “a ministerial priority for the Minister of Internal Affairs, Brooke van Velden”.

Hats off, then, to van Velden for having better things to do with her time and to the submitters who took the time to object.

Kudos, too, to the Free Speech Union [FSU], which facilitated around 93 per cent of the submissions made via an online portal it set up [on which topic, as reported on page one, FSU chief executive Jonathan Ayling now appears to have another battle on his plate that’s much closer to home – one that the Times-Age will be following with great interest].

As Ayling has noted, “Considerable work remains to create online environments where all individuals are free to speak openly, without facing harassment or potential intimidation,” but this “a cultural work, one which is enabled by a dedicated belief in free speech; not imposing ambiguous ‘regulation’ to beat distasteful opinions or provocative views”.

It is worrying, however, that DIA has reported that the majority of submissions it received from 105 media, technology, and regulatory organisations were supportive of the proposed mandatory regime.

The fundamental problem with such [presumably] well-meaning initiatives to protect people from online “harm” – including the danger of hearing a view one may disagree with – is that they create a regulatory architecture that’s ready to be abused when [not if] the political pendulum swings in a less ‘enlightened’ direction.

By all means, look up censorship in Weimar Germany if you need a saltatory example.

Or, for a contemporary case in point, cast your eyes in the direction of Justin Trudeau’s Canada, where the government has introduced the Online Harms Act [or Bill C-63] to Parliament.

Like the DIA’s proposal, this has initially been sold as being about increasing child safety and “protecting the vulnerable”.

However, among other things, as noted by Toby Young in The Spectator, “Under the bill, anyone can accuse you of the ‘communication of hate speech’ and if the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal finds you guilty it can order you to pay up to $20,000 to ‘any victim’ and $50,000 to the state [on pain of imprisonment] … And it isn’t just stuff you’ve posted after the new law comes into force you can get into trouble for – oh, no – but anything you’ve posted, ever, dating back to the dawn of the internet.”

Granted, The Spectator is a conservative paper [odd, isn’t it, how ‘the right’ are now defenders of free speech, while many on ‘the left’ feel it needs curbing?], so as ever, don’t take this writer’s word of for it – ‘do your own research’.

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