This email is more urgent than a regular ‘Free Speech update’. I’m contacting you about an important development that could have major implications for your free speech online.
Netsafe, the “online safety organisation”, is asking for feedback on what it’s calling the Aotearoa New Zealand Code of Practice for Online Safety and Harms.
In effect, it’s a censor’s charter for the likes of Google, Facebook, and Twitter. We only learned about this last week, and it has largely slipped under the radar. There has been next to no media attention on the Code’s implications.
Friends we need your help to fight back.
Netsafe has developed the Code in consultation with a broad range of digital platforms including Facebook, Google, Twitter and TikTok, with the goal of “enhancing Kiwi’s safety and reducing harmful content online”.
The Code isn’t just about reducing the prevalence of content like the sexual abuse of children or incitements to violence (which are obviously already illegal and way beyond the scope of free speech). No, this is also about censorship of so-called “misinformation”, “disinformation”, and “hate speech”.
The Code threatens to encroach on legal speech and enable censorship on a whole new level in the online space.
“Hate speech laws via the back modem”
The Code would force digital platforms to block online content that is lawful, but still deemed ‘harmful’
The Code is voluntary (at this stage) but as we are seeing in the UK with their Online Safety Bill, it is a very slippery slope.
Digital platforms that sign up to Netsafe’s Code are committing to remove content that is legal but, in some way, ‘harmful’. That would create two tiers of speech in New Zealand, with speech that is lawful offline being censored online.
We do not believe the Code should seek to protect users from ‘hate speech’, ‘misinformation’ or ‘disinformation’ because it is impossible to define those terms precisely enough to prevent them being weaponised by political actors. The risk that any such provisions will be used to censor lawful content for political or ideological reasons is too great. Worse still, the Code allows digital platforms to define these concepts on their own terms.
We need to ensure there is widespread participation in Netsafe’s consultation. Tell them to keep legal speech free.
Make no mistake, if this Code is implemented it will get politicised, weaponised, and abused. The Code will encourage digital platforms to suppress lawful content which is controversial, counter-cultural or offensive. While the Code claims to respect freedom of expression, its actual rules do nothing of the sort.
We already know that digital platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter remove vast swathes of lawful content. NetSafe’s Code will only compound this issue, and see them control speech and debate either voluntarily or at the behest of politically motivated complainants claiming to speak on behalf of vulnerable groups.
That’s why we’re contacting you and asking you to join us in calling on Netsafe to remove controls over lawful speech from the Code altogether.
You can read our full submission to Netsafe outlining why this Code is such bad news for free speech on our website here. We’ve also drafted a standard submission that you can edit to help you submit to NetSafe at www.FreeSpeechSubmission.com
The Free Speech Union acknowledges that technology companies are not doing enough to protect users, in particular children, from genuinely disgusting and illegal content. But ‘cleaning up’ the internet without encroaching on users’ freedom of expression is a difficult balancing act and, as things stand, the Code is effectively a censors’ charter.
Even if the Code is well-intentioned, it should never be up to big corporates to define what is “hate speech” or “misinformation”.
Friend, we live in a golden era of censorship, with Governments, universities, and workplaces feeling entitled to control the free speech of citizens, staff & students, and employees. In our increasingly digital world, a Code like this will strike a major blow to free speech. Submit in just a few minutes through our online portal before this censors’ charter is finalised.
Thank you for your support.
Free Speech Union