DIA refuses figures on investigation of 'innocent' internet users

The Department of Internal Affairs has refused to answer an Official Information Act request asking about the extent of unproductive and possibly unjustified investigation of New Zealand internet users.

The Department of Internal Affairs has refused to answer an Official Information Act request asking about the extent of unproductive and possibly unjustified investigation of New Zealand internet users.

When Computerworld asked earlier this year about the ratio between online investigations and convictions for trading of illegal material, Keith Manch, general manager of the department’s gaming and censorship regulation division, wrote: “As at 13 October 2003, the censorship compliance unit had carried out a total of 558 investigations of people in internet environments devoted to the trade in objectionable material.”

He was including the surveillance of P2P and IRC channels in that total. At that time, there had been just over 100 convictions.

The DIA refused a reply because formulating one would allegedly take too much effort. This is a permissible ground to refuse a request, under Section 18(f) of the Act.

Manch pointed out the figure of 558 includes some cases where the culprits were merely warned or referred elsewhere, for example, to Police Youth Aid, police diversion or the Youth Court. There was also a waiting list for court appearances, he said.

Computerworld had sought figures for the cases where people were investigated for trading and insufficient evidence had emerged. That category was omitted from a reply given to the parliamentary select committee on reforms to censorship legislation.

Asked in the first inquiry to separate out the "innocents", Manch and his team appear to have misinterpreted the request as asking how many illegal traders were innocent of other crimes. He said it was not possible to answer this unasked question. However, the answer [83%] is given and analysed in detail in a paper co-written by Manch and presented at the Internet Safety Group conference earlier this year.

We asked the original question again and the most recent reply, dated December 1, says: “The department does not hold the information you request in collated form. Information about an investigation is held in a file related only to that investigation.

“To provide the information you request would require gathering the data from each investigation file. The amount of documentation involved and the time it would take to examine it would require the department to divert resources from censorship enforcement and policy work.”

The question has been resubmitted in a complaint to the Ombudsman’s office.

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