Serious threat to free speech online – speak up now

Submissions for Online Censorship plans close Monday 31 July.

While you weren’t paying attention the Department of Internal Affairs have been making plans to curb what you and me can say online. 

The Safer Online Services and Platform proposals are taking submissions until Monday. Disguised in fuzzy language about keeping the public safe from online harm, it’s really a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It seems clear the government is trying to rush this consultation in ahead of the election, and that the recent RNZ audio-series Undercurrent was timed to generate fear and concern among the unsuspecting public about the threat of ‘mis-and-disinformation’ in a corresponding time-frame. Articles like this one from Kate Hannah, from our friends at The Disinformation Project, also seemed timed for good effect.

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The undemocratic proposals are the gateway to direct government control over what you can and can’t say on social media, and what smaller, more adversarial media organisations will be able to say online.

The proposed independent regulator is not just aimed at regulating platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Tik Tok, it’s really plain and simple internet censorship – it will have a very detrimental impact of the right to free expression. Worse, the government will be able to do this without public or Parliamentary scrutiny if the way the proposals are drafted go through.

The plan is to use binding ‘codes of conduct’ that will be written by industry, but really this means the existing major players and big companies who are already in cahoots with governments (see the Twitter and Facebook files for evidence of governments pressuring platforms to censor throughout covid). 

Smaller, newer outlets like The Platform, Voices for Freedom, The Free Speech Union and Reality Check Radio, which all push back against government overreach and corruption, would almost certainly become the victims of such a regime.

As the Free Speech Union has pointed out, allowing established players to write regulation that will become mandatory for the whole online information space, is tantamount to inviting regulatory capture and destroying competition.

Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility have said in their submission that, “Such constitutional change would create extraordinary powers that would corrode and severely impair or destroy our constitutional democracy. The notional primary pillar of democracy is freedom-of-expression, which protectively guarantees other rights … the DIA’s proposals appear to reflect an intention to take explicit statutory powers to command peoples’ thoughts and conversations.”

Critics say that the the regulator will not be separate from the government and will in all likelihood end up defending the political position of those in power, while dissenting views will be censored.

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This proposal is harmonised with similar legislation that is either proposed or already passed, across the west, particularly in Five Eyes countries. In reality, these laws form the basis of a global censorship apparatus that will destroy free speech as we know it in the west. 

  • Australia’s Online Safety Bill 2021, which was passed in 2021 proposes significant curtailment of ‘mis and dis-information’.
  •  The European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) is likely to be a tool to coerce online platforms into deleting ‘hateful content’ under threat of blocking them as punishment.

If successful, the new NZ regulator would be able to fine organisations many hundreds of thousands of dollars if they don’t comply with takedown orders, effectively financially crippling government critics.

Voices for Freedom notes of the consultation that, “There is no suggestion of any change to the powers granted to current organisations to deal with objectionable material. However, what is asked for is feedback on the expansion of powers to the Regulator to deal with material that is purported to be illegal, including the power to determine what is illegal – which is over and above the more extreme content that’s already objectionable and able to be removed under current laws.”

Big Brother Watch in the UK says its Bill “poses the greatest threat to UK free speech in living memory”. The UK Open Rights Group says the Bill is coming for end-to-end encryption, so that government can scan private messages. Australian regulators say they are concerned about “group messaging” and have indicated a desire to be able to scan people’s private google docs. 

The warm and fuzzy language used by the DIA to sell this proposal to Kiwis are weasel words, and the ‘harms’ they say they want to protect you from are already substantially regulated. These laws are to protect Government from speech it doesn’t like and deny citizens a critical voice.

Censorship is coming for the online space. If you value your privacy and freedom of speech, tell the Government where it can stick its plans.

You can make a submission here, or you can use Voices for Freedom and the Free Speech Union’s tools to make it easy. Make sure you add your own thoughts, as repetitive submissions are taken less seriously.

Read these submissions from the FSU & PSGR for inspiration.

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