Cyber censorship feared from new laws

Last updated 16:12 26/03/2014

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New Zealand's biggest telecommunications company says proposed laws to clamp-down on online abuse could instead spark digital censorship.

Speaking before MPs today, John Wesley-Smith from Telecom said under the proposed laws internet firms that hosted websites or social media forums would end up removing content as soon as someone complained, to avoid potential penalties.

The complaints system would also effectively give censorship power to complainants who might be acting maliciously themselves.

"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 them down entirely, he said.

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

It would also create a new authority to consider complaints and issue take-down notices, including against internet service providers.

Some internet-content hosts, such as news sites or Trade Me, would be protected from criminal fines but only if they acted appropriately on complaints.

Most submitters today were broadly supportive of the bill but some argued it would infringe freedom of speech or would fail to reach online forums based overseas, such as Facebook.

Journalist Ian Wishart told the committee he felt like he was playing "whack-a-mole" when trying to combat abusive and threatening Facebook groups opposed to his book from the perspective of Macsyna King, the mother of the deceased Kahui twins.

He said it was a struggle to get Facebook to close the pages that were viewed by tens of thousands, even after a favourable court judgment in New Zealand.

But Netsafe executive director Martin Cocker said most of the online abuse was not occurring on Facebook, which had strict policies about abusive posts.

He supported the bill but, along with a online-content groups such as Trade Me and Kiwiblog, argued websites should have the option of seeking a reply from a poster if a victim complained.

He played down concerns the bill could lead to more censorship.

"Nothing in [the bill] will break the Internet ... but it will change how people act," he said.

Vikram Kumar, of internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom's Internet Party, suggested the bill should only apply to people aged under 21 as it was young people most affected by online abuse. That position was challenged by several MPs.

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