Chairperson's Report 2018

It’s been an interesting year for civil liberties with events, particularly overseas, bringing up some new ways of looking at the meaning of freedom of speech in the digital age.

Issues and events in NZ

In New Zealand the freedom of expression issue was seen in the furore around the visit of Canadian provocateurs Laura Southern and Stefan Molyneux, and the cancellation of local politician Don Brash’s talk at Massey University.

The Council did not get directly involved in these issues but did post an article entitled Civil liberties and reasonable limits on freedom of expression that laid out our view of the desirability of free speech while also recognising that it can cause harms such as bullying and disinformation. We then put the view that while our society can limit speech, any such limits should be made democratically, based in law, and be as minimal as possible.

Ultimately we do not believe there is a crisis of suppression of freedom of expression in New Zealand. It seems that many views, including highly offensive ones, are readily available and that sharing and receiving views is easier than it has ever been before. However, the same tools that have made this possible have also increased the harms from speech and our society needs to work out how to address this.

A more local issue was the use of evidence in courts that is so secret that even the defendant and their lawyer can’t see it. The case in the media concerned the cancellation of a passport but we also found other laws with similar provisions. We are strongly opposed to such laws and believe that evidence that can’t be challenged by the defendant cannot be used.

Conditions in New Zealand prisons continue to be a concern, with our relatively high incarceration rates putting pressure on prison space. This has led to an increase in double-bunking and the associated problems. We hope for both full scale penal reform as well as providing better conditions for our prisoners until we do.

We are worried at the decision undertaken at the Five Eyes spy network meeting to call for greater government interception and decryption powers. Modern internet security is built on encryption and we fear that the government would prefer to limit our security in order to increase its surveillance abilities. With Australia already moving to pass laws we will be watching this issue carefully.

The New Zealand Privacy Act is finally being updated and we made a submission to the Select Committee. While the updates, including increased powers for the Privacy Commissioner, look useful we feel that there has been a failure to fully grapple with the implications of mass data collection and analysis.

Actions of the Council

Some of the activities the Council was involved in this year include:

  • We reviewed the Official Information Act and recommended significant changes and improvements. This was published as a report A Better Official Information Act.
  • Attended the Reference Group set up by the Inspector-General of Intelligence Services.
  • In a nod to our subsuming of lobby group Tech Liberty, we posted a guest article about internet domain name (DNS) security.
  • Dealing with correspondence and issues from a range of people who needed advice or someone to speak up for them.

We spoke to the media on multiple issues including:

  • Customs’ new power to force people to unlock their phones at the border.
  • Police access to data collected by councils and private companies.

We made submissions on the following bills:

Internal Council Matters

The Council is working well and made progress on a number of internal measures this year.

We came up with a list of policy priorities that we plan to update each year.

We discussed and codified how we make policy decisions and who can represent the views of the Council. 

Our monthly meetings continue to be a valuable way to share news, discuss current events, and plan council activities. Attendance has been increasing both in person and via internet video-conferencing. It’s been great to have issues discussed by a wider range of people.

We continue to use our website (http://nzccl.org.nz) to post news, articles, media releases and government submissions.

Plans for the Future

It’s clear that we need to keep working to promote civil liberties in New Zealand. We see our mission as to continue to educate people about civil liberties and why they are important. Alongside this we continue to put the civil liberties point of view to government through submissions and consultations. Finally, we will keep providing advice and assistance to those who need it.

We need your help

The Council does important work but we need to be doing more of it. If you think you can help we would be grateful for your ideas, your efforts, your resources, and your time. Please contact me at thomas@nzccl.org.nz

Thomas Beagle
Chairperson, NZ Council for Civil Liberties

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