MPs warned of internet censorship risk

Last updated 05:00 27/03/2014

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Proposed laws to clamp down on online abuse could instead spark digital censorship, Telecom has warned.

Internet firms that host websites or social media could end up removing content whenever someone complained, in order to avoid penalties, Telecom regulatory manager John Wesley-Smith told MPs yesterday. That would give censorship powers to complainants who were deliberately seeking to stifle debate.

"We are concerned that this will create unhealthy sensitiveness for online content hosts to remove any content that is complained about," he said.

"This raises questions about censorship and freedom of speech."

For content that it did not control, such as third-party websites, the problem would be more pronounced, and Telecom's only recourse would be to shut the sites down, he said.

Telecom was speaking before the justice and electoral select committee, which is considering a bill to criminalise "harmful digital communication", including inciting suicide online.

It would also create a new authority to consider complaints and issue takedown notices, which would cover internet service providers.

Some internet content hosts, such as news websites or Trade Me, would be protected from punishment as safe harbours, but only provided they responded appropriately and swiftly to complaints.

Most submitters who spoke yesterday were broadly supportive of the bill, but some argued that it would infringe freedom of speech or would be powerless against sites based overseas, such as Facebook.

Journalist Ian Wishart said attempts to shut down abusive Facebook groups that had attacked and threatened him over his book about Macsyna King, mother of the dead Kahui twins, was like playing "Whack-A-Mole". It was a struggle to get Facebook to close the pages, even after a favourable court judgment in New Zealand.

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- The Dominion Post

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