Any value in Labour's Digital Bill?

Last updated 14:19 14/03/2014

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Opinion: The well-respected Institute of Information Technology Professionals has had a little dig at the "mainstream media" today for ignoring Labour's planned Digital Bill of Rights.

The Digital Bill of Rights was perhaps one of the most innocuous of dozens of Labour policy ideas accidentally leaked to the Government by Labour leader David Cunliffe's office this month. It is the first to be confirmed as party policy.

Most of the ideas in Labour's leaked policy document, such as its digital content levy, which could be imposed on telcos and internet providers to pay for the creation and distribution of local digital content, are readily understandable.

But, I will admit I got a bit stuck in places with the Digital Bill of Rights which would guarantee "freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion while still outlawing hate speech".

Thought? Conscience? Religion? Really? Since when was freedom of thought under threat in any medium and how might anyone try and restrict it? Why would freedom of thought need to be specifically protected in a digital environment and how do you digitise thought and transmit it across the internet in the first place?

As InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter has pointed out, freedom of expression (which is I think what Labour is really talking about) is already protected, though with limitations, by the Bill of Rights Act.

Aside from the illegality of stirring up racial hatred, it is also illegal to defame people or to breach court suppression orders for example.

It is not clear whether Labour is considering rolling back any of the well entrenched exceptions to freedom of expression or whether the party is saying they should be applied differently with respect to digital media (though I'd be surprised).

Similar uncertainty exists over provisions that would supposedly guarantee citizens access to the internet and protect them from "blanket mass surveillance" but not override "current GCSB powers".

As far as I am aware people have the right to access the internet at the moment, unless they are in prison. Or is Labour talking about a right to access the internet for free?

The vague promise concerning mass surveillance is clearly designed to appeal to people concerned by revelations by US whistleblower Edward Snowden, but it is unclear how any bill would affect the existing legal norms.

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The sheer size of the National Security Agency's 9300 square metre data centre in Utah would suggest that it has been obtaining raw bits and bytes en masse, perhaps from tapping directly into international fibre-optic cables.

It is also apparent that when carrying out targeted surveillance on specific individuals it has done so using tools of mass communication such as social media. But it is worth pointing out the US Government denies taking part in mass surveillance on individuals (by putting the two together), in a way that might allow spies to search through all Kiwis' email accounts for example.

Is that Labour's concern? Does Labour believe its Digital Bill of Rights would bind the US Government? If not, what might be its practical impact?

Carter argues there is "nothing further that a Digital Bill of Rights Act could do in outlawing mass surveillance that the current Bill of Rights Act does not".

On Tuesday I bumped into new Privacy Commissioner John Edwards who expressed the view that "high-level" principles such as a Digital Bill of Rights might have some value as a kind of line in the sand against which a government might benchmark new legislation. That seems quite generous.

As Carter notes: "the detail really counts in these matters".

He adds (and this is a truth the Government also seems to be in danger of forgetting) that there is no reason to think that laws governing behaviour online should be different to laws offline.

While I can't speak for the rest of the mainstream media, I can at least assure the IITP that I have approached both Labour communications and IT spokesman Cunliffe and associate spokeswoman Clare Curran with the hope of getting some of that detail.

The difficulty in reporting on the Digital Bill of Rights is that without detail, policy initiatives such as these seem rather amorphous and, dare I say it, perhaps even not very "genuine".

- Stuff


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