Parliament, Legislation, and the Internet

Wellington's BeehiveEarlier this week, I presented to a group of 15 Parliamentarians, plus a couple of dozen staffers, at an event we co-sponsored called the Parliamentary Digital Bootcamp. This was an initiative that we partnered with Google and Facebook on, designed to educate new MPs on how they can utilise the Internet in their work.

 My presentation to this was slightly different to the others - I talked about how MPs have a big role to play in promoting the Internet's benefits and uses, and protecting its potential. As our governing overlords, they have the responsibility for writing law that helps to deliver to that goal - and as I said to them, writing legislation that works with the Internet rather than against it is a really hard job. 

Unfortunately, that job is one that Parliament has not necessarily always done well, to be frank. In that regard, I refer to:

  • The Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act 2011, and when one of the MPs referred to this as the "Skynet" Bill. Not to mention of course the concept in that legislation of account disconnection from the Internet (even though that has not been activated in practice, its still there). 

  • The Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013, or TICSA as it is known, and its chilling impact on innovation and network management through reporting - while of course the underlying menace of installing surveillance capability across New Zealand's telecommunications infrastructure. Some of those chilling effects are now alleged to have been realised - I'll leave Tech Liberty to explain more: http://techliberty.org.nz/the-gcsbs-brake-on-innovation/ 

  • The "you don't need to know what's in it" approach that Parliament, via our Foreign Affairs, is taking to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, despite increasing evidence that there could be some really meaningful, worrying stuff about the Internet in this Agreement. But we don't know - because our Parliament won't let us see it. 

  • And the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, which is really close to finishing its Second Reading in Parliament now. Noble in its intent, a bit weird in its execution. Our key problem here is that harm is harm - do we really need to approach it differently in an online context? If we do, should the approach not be on education first, rather than criminalisation? We've worked hard on this, and Parliament has amended it a bit due to our feedback and others - but there's still some pretty big questions here. See our previous blog post on this topic here: https://internetnz.nz/blog/harmful-digital-redux 

There's four examples. I'm sure we could come up with others. I don't mean to point out this legacy in an overly critical way though to be truly honest, because as per the start of this blog post, it is really hard to write legislation about the Internet. 

I think we've got to help our Parliamentarians do better than this - to do more than just provide them with our submissions. And I think that's a job that InternetNZ is uniquely placed to help with - because we are non-partisan; because we do have access to great minds in our membership and our Internet Community; because we have given great advice before, and because we are for the Open Internet, promoting its benefits and uses and protecting its potential. We don't have all the answers - but we can connect our Parliament to people that do, and we can help them understand what impact their legislative ideas may have and how they can be dealt to better. 

I also believe we need to do more. The trend towards ever more draconian legislation about the Internet is playing out overseas, and I worry that it could only be a matter of time until we see some of those "innovations" here. I'm thinking of mandatory data retention. I'm thinking of mandatory registration of mobile numbers. I'm thinking about ever more pervasive surveillance via the Internet (though hey, unfortunately, that might already be happening too?). We need to be an effective counterbalancing voice about these things, and help our Parliament understand that there is real cost and damage to legislating in this manner.  

We can also do more than that too. This year we've been doing research into different models for an Internet Law Observatory. These Observatories exist in a couple of different forms overseas, but all with the goal of providing expert advice on Internet law specifically, from academics that really know their stuff. An idea like this could take the advice available to the New Zealand Parliament to a whole new level. We will be releasing our findings on this in the near future, and then thinking about whether and how to implement them thereafter, so watch this space. 

I believe we can do something new, different and exciting to make legislation about the Internet better in New Zealand. A big part of that is ensuring that we use our membership and our community to provide their expertise to help Parliament with expert advice. Because we need to do this, and because they need our help.