I believe the Censor's Office in New Zealand does a very good job. While our laws on Obscenity are just as vague and subjective as anyone else's, here they seem to be interpreted very liberally. In Australia, we're sometimes held up as an example of depravity for what our censor allows to go un-banned.
Given the law as it is written, it seems perfectly understandable that the Department of Internal Affairs should at least attempt to regulate internet content. There's no reason objectionable material should get a pass because it happens to be on a website instead of in a book or on a DVD. It's complicated, of course, because the material can be produced in one country, hosted in another, and viewed in a third, and the DIA only has jurisdiction over New Zealand, but they're surely legally obligated to try.
So in 2007 and 2008, the DIA ran a trial filtering program in conjunction with a selection of New Zealand ISPs. If you were with TelstraClear, Watchdog, Maxnet or Ihug in that period, you participated in that trial. But you know that, right? Your ISP told you they were filtering your internet connection, right? The Department of Internal Affairs' budget indicates that filtering will be introduced some time during the 2009/10 financial year. And I'm sure they were planning to tell you before they did it.
We do have details of the scheme, so there's probably nothing to worry about over the free and open flow of information. That's what Thomas Beagle's experience tells you. A few quick* Official Information Act requests and the DIA is perfectly happy to tell you just what it's up to. Sort of.
Thomas's hard work hasn't just provided the information. He's also written it up into two FAQs, general and technical. They provide a clear, easy summary of the information and I highly recommend them for anyone interested in what's about to happen to your internet connection.
It is, I have to say, a very good scheme as these schemes go. They are only blocking child pornography sites, and blocking to the level of individual pages and images rather than whole sites. Signing up to the scheme is entirely voluntary for ISPs. Sites are viewed by actual people, and for a site to be added to the list, three people have to agree that it fits the criteria. Each site is reviewed monthly to see if it should still be on the list. If you attempt to access a blocked site, you will be told that the site is blocked – unlike the similar system in place in Britain. Because traffic only referred to the DIA system if the requested site is on the list, the speed of most traffic should be entirely unaffected.
That sounds so much better than the Australian scheme, right? No wonder there's been so much less fuss.
It is easy to stop people fussing about things if you don't tell them.
So, given everything I've said, why am I still not happy about this? Partly, of course, because I'm a whiny bitch. But also because I'm a consistent whiny bitch.
I'm not the only one. Thomas has concerns. Mauricio Freitas has concerns. The staff at pretty much every café in a 2km radius of our house have concerns about the way my partner and I keep going for coffee and discussing child pornography.
My first concern is that nobody told anybody about this. This letter from TelstraClear certainly wasn't widely-distributed. It also contains a rather interesting statement:
TelstraClear will not be keeping records of any users who attempt to access these sites. This is not an intelligence gathering or covert measure. It is a simple filtering process to make the internet safer for all.
This is absolutely true. The ISP doesn't collect the information. The DIA does. They log your IP number if you try to access a blocked site, for whatever reason.
No laws have needed to be passed. There has been no public debate. The decision to implement filtering came from with the DIA. As far as I am aware, the ISPs which took part in the trial chose not to tell their users that they were doing so.
My second concern is the nature of 'voluntary'. In Britain, the filtering scheme is enforced in this exact way: it's voluntary for any ISP to sign up, or not sign up. And every British ISP signed up. Here, the ISPs that took part in the trial, and the ones that have indicated interest in picking up the filtering scheme (Telecom and Vodaphone) represent 94% of the New Zealand market. Once this is up and running, how many people will be able to access unfiltered internet if they want to?
Then there's 'drift'. I know this is a dubious 'slippery slope' argument, but if you look at the legislation that governs censorship in New Zealand, nowhere is child pornography separated from other objectionable material. Customs already acts in cases of possession of bestiality material – why not filter for that as well? It's clearly objectionable. And if you're doing that, then why not the worst, most violent pornography as well, the kind covered by Britain's extreme pornography law? In fact, why not everything already defined as objectionable?
All 'objectionable' material is banned. In deciding whether a publication is ‘objectionable’, or should instead be given an ‘unrestricted’ or ‘restricted’ classification, consideration is given to the extent, degree and manner in which the publication describes, depicts, or deals with:
• acts of torture, the infliction of serious physical harm or acts of significant cruelty
• sexual violence or sexual coercion, or violence or coercion in association with sexual conduct
• sexual or physical conduct of a degrading or dehumanising or demeaning nature
• sexual conduct with or by children, or young persons, or both
• physical conduct in which sexual satisfaction is derived from inflicting or suffering cruelty or pain
• exploits the nudity of children, young persons, or both
• degrades or dehumanises or demeans any person
• promotes or encourages criminal acts or acts of terrorism
• represents that members of any particular class of the public are inherently inferior to other members of the public by reason of any characteristic of members of that class being a characteristic that is a prohibited ground of discrimination specified in the Human Rights Act 1993.
It's their job, just as much as banning child pornography is. Many other lists of banned URLs, initially set up to combat child pornography, now contain much other material, some of it not sexual at all, some of it not violent. Drift happens. And if nobody told you they were filtering your connection in the first place, how likely are you to be told if extra material is added to the list?
The secret list. Thomas has, very ballsily, attempted to OIA the blacklist. The DIA says the blacklist is around 7000 URLs: for context, the Australian list is around 1400. This could easily be explained by the New Zealand list operating at a greater level of detail, so one site could contribute dozens of URLs to the list, where the Australian list would simply block the whole site. But we don't know that, and we're not allowed to know. The DIA refused to release the list. Thomas has complained to the Ombudsman.
It should also be noted that the DIA is required to make public its list of decisions in regard to other media. If it bans a book or a DVD, you're allowed to know about it. If it bans a website, you're not.
There's a good reason for this, of course. If only some ISPs are using the filter, then if you publish the list, people on other ISPs would be able to use the list to find child pornography. Assuming that people interested in looking at that kind of material don't already know where to find it, or aren't trading it between individuals over peer to peer networks.
The child pornography the DIA is blocking also includes material such as drawings or fiction, where no children were harmed in the production.
Most people won't care, frankly, if their internet connections are filtered. And a lot of people will heartily approve – after all, it's child pornography. The filter is 'making the internet safer for all'. But you should at least know.
*please note that in this context 'quick' may mean 'delayed as long as judiciously possible'