GNI issued the submission below to the Government of New Zealand on 31 March in response to a call for input on the FVPCA bill.
The Global Network Initiative
The Global Network Initiative (GNI) is the world’s preeminent multistakeholder collaboration in support of freedom of expression and privacy in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. GNI’s members include leading academics, civil society organizations, ICT companies, and investors from across the world. All GNI members subscribe to and support the GNI Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy, which are drawn from widely adopted international human rights instruments.
GNI brings our unique perspectives and experience to bear on the issues addressed in the Film, Videos, and Publications Classifications Amendment (FVPCA) Bill. As an original and ongoing member of the Christchurch Call Advisory Network (CCAN), GNI has continued to engage and provide input to the governments of France and New Zealand consistent with the recommendations in GNI’s “Extremist Content in the ICT Sector” policy brief. As part of the CCAN, GNI regularly contributes unique multistakeholder perspectives and serves as a bridge to our diverse membership.
GNI has also conducted wide-ranging research and global consultation on the regulation of digital content. Last year, GNI engaged in a detailed analysis of various content regulation efforts around the world, convening six events targeting government officials and other stakeholders in Africa, the EU, India, Pakistan, and the UK. All of this work culminated in GNI’s Content Regulation and Human Rights Policy Brief (Content Regulation Brief), which identifies helpful and problematic elements of emerging approaches and includes specific recommendations for how governments can address digital content-focused concerns consistent with human rights principles.
Key concerns with FVPCA
GNI appreciates the opportunity to provide input on the FVPCA. We share concerns about how best to act on and deter illegal content online, particularly in view of the horrifying events of the Christchurch terrorist attack in 2019. And we appreciate the government’s leadership role in working to address terrorist and violent extremist content online without compromising human rights and fundamental freedoms, as iterated in the Christchurch Call.
The approach outlined in the FVPCA Bill proposes significant changes to the existing legal framework for blocking objectionable content, specifically, bringing online content into the scope of the Bill, creating the mechanism for a government-mandated filter for objectionable content, and conferring additional powers to the Chief Censor and the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA). We are concerned that individually and cumulatively, these provisions may be disproportionate in their impact on freedom of expression and privacy.
GNI urges the Select Committee and the government to reconsider this approach. Specifically, we encourage the government to use the international human rights principles of legality, legitimacy, and necessity, which New Zealand is committed to, as the basis to ensure that any changes to existing law are clear, appropriate, and proportionate, and that they include appropriate transparency, oversight, and accountability mechanisms.
As GNI notes in our Content Regulation Brief, “[t]o the extent that substantial rulemaking authority and discretion is delegated to independent bodies . . . . States must create robust oversight and accountability mechanisms to ensure that those bodies act pursuant to the public interest.” The conferral of additional powers to the Chief Censor to make “swift time-limited interim classification assessments” allowing a maximum of twenty days before a final, written decision is issued, creates the possibility that content that is newsworthy or otherwise important and time-sensitive may be censored without sufficient clarity as to justification or opportunities for appeal.
Additionally, the authorization of an Inspector of Publications, appointed by the DIA, to issue takedown notices for online publications that they believe “on reasonable grounds” to be objectionable could also have significant impacts on freedom of expression. Unlike the Office of Classifications which is legally independent and subject to transparency reporting obligations, the role of Inspector would be under the remit of a government department and may, therefore, leave the powers of the position open to inappropriate political or ideological influence. As we set out in our Content Regulation Policy Brief, “more appropriate are approaches that establish clear limiting criteria and leave the determination of when those criteria are met to a judge.” At the very least, the law should ensure that any government authority empowered to adjudicate and remove content is independent and subject to appropriate oversight and accountability. In addition, we are concerned that the “reasonable grounds” standard can be highly subjective, leading to the likelihood of inappropriate and inconsistent application.
The FVPCA also introduces authority for the establishment of a government-backed “web filter.” We note that there is considerable debate over the extent to which such filters can achieve the intended effect of accurately blocking access to objectionable content, and join others who object to the FVPCA’s introduction of open-ended rules to mandate Internet filtering, with no firm limits on scope, no set technical specifications, and no meaningful independent oversight.
GNI urges the government to reconsider filtering and ensure any new authorities for mandating removal of content include robust safeguards, mechanisms for appeal and redress, and appropriate oversight.
The 2019 Christchurch attack, and the Government’s subsequent international leadership, including the establishment of the Christchurch Call, make New Zealand’s approach to these issues uniquely important and resonant. New Zealand has an opportunity to lead once again by modelling how a strong democratic government can successfully address legitimate concerns around online harms in a manner that is consistent with internationally recognized rule of law and human rights principles. We remain committed to these goals and look forward to continuing to engage with the government and other stakeholders to address extremist and terrorist content online while upholding international human rights norms.