The Censors Who'll Save Us From Ourselves

There's a common malady suffered by bureaucracies the world over.

They wish to save us from ourselves.

Sadly, NZ officials are no less prone to exhibiting symptoms of this occupational condition.

Observe, for instance, the reaction from certain public figures to the news the Department of Internal Affairs has abandoned the formation of a new online super regulator. Without the new state entity criminal activity we’ll, according to these critics, now have free reign on the internet.

Even former prime minister Helen Clark weighed in on the issue when she disparaged the “so-called Free Speech Union” (her words!) for rallying a citizen army and helping people lodge nearly 20,000 online submissions in opposition to the proposed regulator.

Apparently, public officials prefer it if the plebs keep their noses out of grown-up business and only participate in our democracy on one specific day every three years.

With all the opining over the rejection of the proposed online regulator, it's worth offering a quick sketch of the legislative and regulatory landscape as it stands in NZ, and showing why FSU and free speech supporters aren’t arguing for a dark-web free-for-all, but rather an internet which minimises harms wherever possible while still protecting fundamental democratic freedoms of speech and expression.

Under the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA) we have a legally protected freedom as Kiwis  “to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.” At the same time, NZ law is also clear that certain categories of speech and expression – whether online or offline – are not permitted. These laws cover known evils such as abuse/exploitation, dissemination of content from banned terrorist groups, extreme violence and more.

The Department of Internal Affairs already runs, for instance, a filtering system (known as DCEFS) that weeds out material related to child abuse/sexual exploitation. Netsafe offers a wide range of services and instruction as well.

If more parents were helped in accessing this organisation’s services we would see a dramatic decrease in online harm to young people.

Teaching our kids how free speech actually promotes critical thinking would also go a long way toward safeguarding them from online radicalisation – something FSU is now doing with the Speak Up! program in high schools.

Social media companies, in spite of the constant drubbing they receive from legacy media, actually block or take down the vast majority of illicit content before it even has a chance to disseminate, and when this fails they are usually extremely quick to act on calls from law enforcement and citizen watchdogs. There are obvious exceptions such as in Australia where the e-Safety Commission has taken on Elon Musk’s social media company X. But even there, X is advancing its case on the basis that arbitrary bureaucratic demands will inevitably curtail legitimate free speech.

While some argue that the advent of AI means we face the exponential growth and proliferation of illicit content, on the flipside there is an equally strong case that AI will be just as powerful in its use as a monitoring and law enforcement tool.

But if much of the content we designate as illegal is already being blocked, filtered or taken down, what type of speech or expression is there left to censor?

How about the kind of speech that certain groups and political parties don’t like? In reality, it is those values and ideas which non-elected self-styled intellectual guardians are really talking about.

Irrespective of whether you’re politically on the left, the right or simply like most of us somewhere near the middle, a single online regulator becomes a highly effective tool for controlling discourse and information by whomever happens to be elected at any given time.

In the U.K. new revelations have just come to light concerning the Conservative Government and its recent attempts at deploying a brigade of the British Army to monitor and restrict the social media use of U.K. citizens who opposed certain public policies during Covid.

Here in NZ we’ve seen a serious campaign from some on the left over the last few years, particularly such self-appointed “experts” as Kate Hannah and Sanjana Hattotuwa of the Disinformation Project. A significant part of their mission, it seems, is to broaden the popular definition of what counts as extremist ideology. Curiously, their own ideological filter only seems to be able to detect right-wing dangers – and by right-wing their working definition would seem to include most people to the right of the Green Party. By their own estimates 350,000 Kiwis are engaged online in “dangerous” ideas – or just over 7% of NZ’s total population. If Ms Hannah and Mr Hattotuwa are the kinds of “experts” ever put in charge of an online regulator here, NZ’s internet may well end up resembling China’s ‘Great Fire Wall.’

The problem is that rather than go after real extremism which is actually violent, but exceedingly difficult to catch, it is often easier for governments to target low hanging fruit such as politically unpopular but non-violent online activism.

They make this more palatable to the public by describing such thinking as a “precursor” to violence and trot out “official experts” who usually have no robust evidence to offer.

The Christchurch Call network gives us ample evidence of this censorious tendency. This was revealed just a few weeks ago, after an independent auditor blew the whistle on the CC executives’ refusal to call out its international partners’ inaction toward violent extremism in their own backyards. Instead of being honest and calling out various governments for their hypocrisy, the Call has widened its target range in order to pursue gender critical activists!

Those in favour of greater censorship say things like “free speech should involve freedom from harmful speech”. But this is ‘sneaky speak’, a semantic trap. What kind of harm? The kind that is already illegal? Or the highly subjective and emotive kind?

Think twice before trusting such platitudes.

Trust the thing instead that public officials and bureaucrats ought to be most afraid of – your own democratic voice, civic values, and common sense.

Nick Hanne
Education Partnership Manager
Free Speech Union

Showing 2 reactions

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  • Robert Biggs
    commented 2024-05-25 17:32:30 +1200
    Free Speech is fundamental to the operation of all Democratic Societies. The Disinformation Project is exercising free speech by trying to expose viewpoints that are erroneous and based upon lies and transmitted propaganda. This is free speech in action throwing light into dark corners of the internet and social media lies – now called alternative facts.
  • Nadia Braddon-Parsons
    published this page in Blog 2024-05-22 17:12:07 +1200

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