Policing the internet

Brad Heap takes a look at the Department of Internal Affairs

Picture this: You walk into the foyer of Pack ‘n’ Save for your weekly grocery shop. Only this time, things are different. Greeting you at the front door is big guy called DIA Filter and he will be your personal shopping assistant for this and all future shops. He doesn’t say much, only yes or no when you pick a product up off the shelf. If he says yes, it means you can buy the product and if he says no, well, you can’t. You can’t even look at it and he will record your name and time you tried to access the product in a black book that you can never see. When you pick up a product you have no idea of whether he will say yes or no or why he makes his decision.

Sound absurd? Sure. But this is what the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) wants to do to the internet in New Zealand. If they get their way, every single website you access will first have to be passed through their filter which will either say yes or no to you being able to access it and, like in the story above, you will have no idea what the answer will be before you try. If you get a no you will not know why and furthermore your details will be recorded. Still sound absurd? I hope so.

The main reason behind such a filtering system is to prevent child pornography. However, the approach that is being taken to deal with this is heavy handed, expensive, and imposes on personal privacy. Once again, the government has forgotten two things: the first is the concept of being innocent until proven guilty, and the second is that pornography is a criminal matter for the police, not the government. Now I will deal with each in turn.

Innocent until proven guilty. This concept is something that we hear of a lot; it is a basic foundation of our idea of justice. By blocking websites beforehand, you are stopping a crime being committed, however to do so you are relying on the non-legal determination of a government department to decide what you can or cannot see. In other words, the government is following you 24/7 checking every single website that you visit. Big Brother is well and truly watching.

In New Zealand, like many other countries, the police are the one with the power to enforce the law. This is where the DIA is over stepping the mark: who made them the sheriff of the World Wide Web? The fact of the matter is no one did, they simply decided to take matters into their own hands through a little known loop hole and creative interpretation of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993. However, it is really important to note that there is actually no specific mention in this act regarding Internet Filtering.

Now don’t get me wrong, child pornography is a serious issue worldwide and every effort is needed to stop the exploitation of children. However, filtering the internet of every single person in New Zealand is not the solution to this problem. In fact it leads to many more problems and this is a major source of concern. There are two main issues; the first is once you have filtered pornography what do you filter next? Extremist political sites? Terrorist sites? Websites coming from rogue states or enemies of the state? Blogs? Once you have the capacity to filter and block one section of the web there is nothing stopping you from expanding it. Not to mention that the DIA won’t tell anyone what sites are currently blocked or why.

The second concern is that of data harvesting. By passing every piece of internet through a DIA Filter the government has the ability to collect a huge amount of data on the lives of all New Zealanders. Simple stuff like what websites we visit most, how much time we spend online, through to reading all our emails and being able to snoop on our online banking and credit card details. What happens when you get a rogue staff member who goes one step too far by checking up on his mates?

Concerned? You should be. So what can you do to change this?

Like the Internet Blackout,  direct action appears to be the only possible chance of a change. If you are keen write to you local member of Parliament, highlight the fact that no law was passed to allow this and that the DIA took it upon themselves to do it without asking anyone for their thoughts.

If you are on twitter start following the account: @nzcensor

For more information check out these sites:

http://www.geekzone.co.nz/freitasm/6625

http://thomasbeagle.net/2009/07/09/nz-internet-filtering-faq/

http://publicaddress.net/6042#post6042