The information and communications technology industry is conspicuous by its absence from the 50-odd written submissions to the select committee inquiry into the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act, which has the internet and other new technology as one of its main focuses.
ISPs, in particular, could be affected by any law change. Some submissions raise the question of whether ISPs should or could be made liable for legally “objectionable” content distributed or accessible through their servers. Fortunately for those companies, the balance of opinion on the subject appears to be that they cannot and should not be held accountable.
Even commercial IT departments may have to factor any new provisions into its monitoring of employee internet use. They might have been expected to have something to say about the practicality of monitoring and blocking undesirable content and the question of employer liability.
InternetNZ had discussions and plans for a submission, but one had not “yet” been made, said executive director Sue Leader last week.
She said she had received no definite information that submissions have closed, but the clerk of the relevant committee and the MP heading it told Computerworld a few days earlier that they had been finally closed, on the resurrection of the inquiry following the election.
The Law Commission is one of those coming out against making ISPs responsible for content. “There is no point in imposing on ISPs a legal obligation to block specified content … because, as appears from a 1998 report by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific And Industrial Research Organisation, there is no completely effective way of doing so,” the commission says in its submission.
However, the Hamilton Women’s branch of the Labour Party says it will “support moves to restrict and prosecute service providers”.
The Law Commission looks at the Australian Broadcasting Services Amendment Act, which imposes some obligations on ISPs, such as provision of filtering software, and an industry formulated code of practice (an attempt at such a CoP backed by InternetNZ and the defunct ISPs’ Association (Ispanz) has had little impact in New Zealand).
However, the commission points out, the Australian statute is complaint-based, making it more like the Broadcasting Standards Authority legislation than the act under discussion.
“The BSA could work with [InternetNZ] to develop codes, as the industry has shown a willingness to self-regulate,” says University of Canterbury senior law lecturer Ursula Cheer, author of several articles on censorship. It is, however, possible that general classification of internet material would result in all consumers being effectively treated as children, since it would be impossible to impose workable age restrictions on the material, she says. This one-level classification for erotic or violent internet content was suggested in the mid-90s by the first version of former MP Trevor Rogers’s controversial and unsuccessful Technology and Crimes Bill.
Cheer calls for an empirical study on the actual incidence of pornography, particularly child pornography, on the internet.
The Federation of Business and Professional Women reproduces the themes of both versions of the Rogers bill, asking ISPs to cut service to anyone transmitting “inappropriate” material, and for compulsory blocking software to screen such material from any computer which may be used by children.
One idea for getting round the restriction problem is suggested in a submission from Gerard Moonen, the defendant in a protracted case involving possession of physical photographs deemed objectionable. He suggests “all erotic material [should] be available at a certain site, set apart from the rest of the internet. International agreements will need to be made,” he adds.
ECPAT, the anti-child-prostitution and child-pornography group, says the question of child porn on the internet should be dealt with by a separate “fast-tracked” inquiry, while more administrative topics should be left until later.