Christchurch massacre and censorship

The Christchurch massacre has led to some new developments in the practice of censorship in New Zealand. This post is an attempt to record what happened and, while it does not make any judgements, there are some questions at the end.

The video

The attack was livestreamed and the video was quickly shared, removed, and then re-uploaded many times.

Hosting sites

Major sites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit made efforts to remove the video off their services in response to complaints. Liveleak also decided it didn't want to make the video available.

Other sites such as 4chan, 8chan, and Kiwifarms chose to keep making the video available for download. Some mainstream media sites also showed clips from the video.

ISP blocks

Major ISPs Spark, Vodafone, and 2 Degrees immediately took action to attempt to block access to the video, by blocking access to the websites that were sharing it. The stated purpose was both to avoid people seeing it inadvertently and to deprive the perpetrator of publicity. Similar actions were also taken in Australia.

These blocks were implemented using DNS. When people tried to connect to 4chan.net, the ISPs refused to translate this into the numerical network address, instead responding that there was no such website. This type of block is trivially circumventable by using another DNS provider such as Google's free 8.8.8.8 DNS service.

These blocks were up for a number of days but now seem to have been removed. (Edit: this statement is either incorrect or the blocks were reinstated, to be removed in a few days.)

Official censorship

Five days after the attack, Chief Censor David Shanks classified the attack video as objectionable. "It is a record of a terrorist atrocity, specifically produced for the purpose of promoting a hateful terrorist agenda."

This means it is now illegal for anyone in New Zealand to view, possess, or distribute the material.

This classification is retrospective, with people being charged for sharing the video before it was officially classified.

The manifesto

Secondly, there was a written manifesto that was circulated by the murderer before he started the attack. This has also been deemed to be an objectionable publication and therefore is also banned in New Zealand. David Shanks the Chief Censor: "There is an important distinction to be made between ‘hate speech,’ which may be rejected by many right-thinking people but which is legal to express, and this type of publication, which is deliberately constructed to inspire further murder and terrorism. It crosses the line."

Inciting racial disharmony

People made highly offensive comments cheering on the killer and calling for more attacks, and at least two have been charged. An 18 year old was charged with sharing the live-stream and "inciting extreme violence". A woman in Masterton has been charged with "inciting racial disharmony" under the Human Rights Act.

Some questions

For many people these events are very raw and they currently find discussing the policy issues around the events difficult. However, over the coming weeks and months, these are some of the questions we need to discuss:

  1. Should this video and manifesto be banned in New Zealand?
  2. Should NZ academics, researchers, and the media have to ask for exceptions or break the law to review it?
  3. Was it reasonable to immediately try to block access?
  4. Is it reasonable to block access to an entire site to block access to one small part of it?
  5. If we do want immediate blocks of such material, who should make the decisions and how should it be implemented?
  6. Do we want our internet service providers making decisions about what we can and cannot see?
  7. Are one-off ad-hoc reactions for exceptional circumstances better than a formal system which would be easier to steadily extend?
  8. Charges for inciting racial disharmony have been rare in New Zealand. Is this the beginning of a trend to use them more often?
  9. The crime of inciting racial disharmony only applies "on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group" and this has been seen as not including religion. How does the law apply in this case, and should it be changed to include religion and possibly other classifications (such as gender and sexuality)?

Coda

What is clear is that the rise of the internet and the resulting speed and fragmentation of mass communications means that we need to rethink some of our assumptions around both freedom of expression and hate speech. Democracy still depends on the free and frank exchange of views, but society has a duty to protect itself and its members from harm. Some of the old lines we've drawn are no longer relevant and to draw new ones we need to understand both what we're trying to protect and the nature of the threats. 

We hope to publish more about this topic in the future.

1 Comment

My (current) answers to the questions asked.

In the sprit of meaningful discussion, I'm going to answer the questions as though they were asked to me. The views are my own and may change as we discuss the issue. 

Should this video and manifesto be banned in New Zealand?

  • Yes. It mets the requirements of objectional content. It can injury the public good. 

Should NZ academics, researchers, and the media have to ask for exceptions or break the law to review it?

  • Outside of NZ, some US police departments have been requesting the footage for 'training purposes'. If they have an actual need, there could be a case for authorites in NZ needing this material. They are likely already using without legal provision but that is conjecture .    

Was it reasonable to immediately try to block access?

  • In this instance, yes. It did limit the spread of objectional content in NZ. Currently there is a subjective element to blocking material quickly and it should be possible to codify quicker takedown processes and procedures. 

Is it reasonable to block access to an entire site to block access to one small part of it?

  • No, censor blocks should be specific and should target the objectional content. Entire websites were blocked wherein blocking a board/page within that website should have been sufficent.

If we do want immediate blocks of such material, who should make the decisions and how should it be implemented?

  • The Chief Censor and the Classification Unit under him/her appear to be best placed, from a legal prespective, for classifing and blocking objectional material. There are also provisions to appeal their decisions. However, the Classification Office is currently not set up to deal with such block requests and this is out of their normal jurisdiction. 

Do we want our internet service providers making decisions about what we can and cannot see?

  • No. The lack of transparency and lack of appeal for their decisions damages net neutrality and the liberties of the Individual. If the State wields the ability to censor, it should do so openly, for well defined reasons and their decsions should be counterable. ISP's currently have no legal provisions to censor beyond their own terms and conditions. Fortunately, internet users can select for an ISP that does not censor ad-hoc, in most situations, but there are penalties for shifting or cloaking their connections.

Are one-off ad-hoc reactions for exceptional circumstances better than a formal system which would be easier to steadily extend?

  • They are not better, but in this instance, it was better than nothing. Live-streaming objectional content will unfortunately not be that 'expectional' in the near future. It was already a problem before this horrible massacre, just not in this country. Developing a formal, fair and well-defined system is imperative. Relying on reactive decisions should be avoided.

Charges for inciting racial disharmony have been rare in New Zealand. Is this the beginning of a trend to use them more often?

  • Unknown. Typically, other 'more specific' charges have been used in situations where racisim was a motive (ie, Assualt, Murder). The event has called our current 'hate laws' into question. There is an apparent lack of data around hate crime in NZ (Professor Paul Hunt).  

The crime of inciting racial disharmony only applies "on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group" and this has been seen as not including religion. How does the law apply in this case, and should it be changed to include religion and possibly other classifications (such as gender and sexuality)?

  • Definitely room to expand this part of the Human Rights Act 1993 to include more groups and therefore more individuals, thereby elevating their rights and making the Act more useful overall.

As mentioned earlier, the answers are my own and not NZCCL's.

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