Dear Peter Dunne,
We write to you in your capacity as the Minister of Internal Affairs.
It has recently come to our attention that the Independent Reference Group, the body providing oversight of the DCEFS internet filter run by the Department, has not met since August 2015.
According to an OIA response from Stephen Waugh, Manager Censorship Compliance, on 9th December 2016, this is because:
"The Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System Code of Practice provides for IRG meetings to occur three or more times a year but this frequency has proven unnecessary. Meetings have been organised on an as required basis. In 2015 two meetings were held and not meetings have been held in 2016. The next IRG meeting will be held in the first quarter of 2017."
The DCEFS's Code of Practice specifies in section 4.3 that they should meet at least three times per year.
At the time of writing there is no sign on the DIA website that any meeting has been held so far in 2017. This means that there have been at least 18 months since the last meeting in August 2015.
The Filter and the IRG
The NZ Council for Civil Liberties and sister group Tech Liberty were opposed to the introduction of the filter. We had, and still have, concerns around state censorship of the internet and the impact on freedom of expression. We were concerned about the unilateral nature of the filter and the lack of any law providing a legal backing and appropriate limits and accountability. We were worried about scope creep - the steady addition of more and more types of material. We feared that it would be used to censor sites that shouldn't be censored. And we feared that all of this would be done in secret with no oversight and no chance of appeal.
The establishment of the Code of Practice and the associated oversight body, the Indepedent Reference Group, was at least some comfort to us. It allowed an outside group to check which sites were being filtered. Its existence provided a brake on the DIA's censorship unit deciding to change the purpose or focus of the filter.
The briefing notes provided to the IRG and the meeting minutes also provided a useful resource for other groups who also wanted to check on the operation of the filter. Judging by these minutes the IRG did provide useful input to the operation of the filter. For example, there were discussions about the extension of the filter to include text-only websites and whether sites focusing on teenagers should be included.
We are very concerned that the Department of Internal Affairs seems to have take it upon itself to suspend the meetings of the Independent Reference Group. We notice that this possibility was not covered in the minutes of the last meeting so there is a further concern that this decision might have been taken unilaterally by the Department without even consulting the IRG.
Oversight of the operation of the filter is important to ensure it is being operated within the terms of the Code of Practice. We do not believe that the IRG or the DIA should be able to suspend oversight in this way.
We ask you to find out why the DIA thinks it is appropriate for it to ignore its own Code of Practice and stop the oversight body from providing oversight of the operation of the internet filter.
We ask you to ensure that the Independent Reference Group continues to meet to provide oversight.
We accept that reducing the frequency of the meetings might make sense but suggest that at the very minimum the IRG should meet at least twice per year. Furthermore, this or any other changes to the Code of Practice to allow this should be advertised for consultation before being implemented.
NZ Council for Civil Liberties