Saturday, May 25, 2024

Nick Hanne: The Censors who'll save us from ourselves......yeah right!

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, according to these critics, we’ll now have free rein 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.

There’s a lot already going on

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 UK 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.

Instead, trust the thing public officials and bureaucrats ought to be most afraid of – your own democratic voice, civic values, and frankly, just basic common sense.

Nick Hanne is the Education Partnerships Manager at the Free Speech Union. This article was sourced HERE


Anonymous said...

The State is our real enemy. Do not comply with your enemy demands.

Anonymous said...

Nick, please keep up the great work in fighting the evil left. Never to democracy has there been such a threat. The rules never apply to the left.

Peter said...

To all those those public and human rights figures, including the likes of Ardern, Clark, Hannah, Hattotuwa et al, who all claim to want to protect us from hateful, violence inspiring speech, in the court of public opinion I'd suggest you are all considered nothing but incompetent hypocrites, for where were you when Tusiata Avia produced "The Savage Coloniser", which not only received significant public exposure, but completely unwarranted taxpayer support and largesse?

But oh - that's right, you've all been supping on that Kool-Aid of 'Woke', which miraculously completely alters a definition and a commonsense perspective.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nick, great stuff. The would-be censors of the Marxist far-left hate any contradiction of their own extremism. We will have to fight their hatred of free speech down to the last syllable.

Empathic said...

Well written wisdom, thanks.

Censorship is a creeping animal. A foot in the door and next thing we're being hassled by police and other officials for wrongthink or for supporting the wrong political party.

The idea that people should be legally protected from feeling offended is the foot's person already inside the door. Restricting freedom is a serious matter and deserves in each case to be supported by evidence that it's needed and that the costs and risks of what's to be restricted outweigh those from the loss of freedoms. No behaviour should be defined as illegal or needing censorship simply on the basis of some people's subjective preferences and/or emotions. A strong constitution would help to protect freedoms that even a simple majority democratic vote could not remove.

It's important to make clear definitions for what behaviour, material and communication will be treated as 'offensive' as opposed to defining it on the basis of some people feeling offended. However, clear definitions seem to be avoided by law makers in order to provide their agents with maximum leeway to interpret the law to support their own preferences.