.nz, harmful content, and how we make the system work
Andrew Cushen – InternetNZ's Interim Chief Executive •
I’ve written this blog post to address concerns about whether and how InternetNZ can remove harmful content, or remove domain names that are hosting harmful content, from the .nz domain namespace.
We are part of a community in Aotearoa that is painfully aware of how the landscape on these issues has become more challenging over the last few years — particularly due to some websites in circulation online at the moment. We also know there are people right now who are rightfully worried and scared that they, or someone they care about, are being named and targeted for potential harm on some of these sites. We don’t like that this content has found a home on .nz, and that our national domain name identity is being used to cause this hurt, risk and fear to the people of Aotearoa New Zealand.
We accept that we are one of the organisations that has a role in responding to that. However, in doing that, we have to be upfront about our role in these challenges, what we can do well, and what we rely on from other parties for guidance, instruction and action.
Why don’t we just take down harmful domain names?
The simple answer is that the domain name system is designed to make it easy for people and organisations to get online. It has been designed to rely on other parties to judge and manage content issues. We are here to help people express themselves online with .nz, and to use the proceeds of that to contribute to an Internet that benefits the people of Aotearoa. We do that with our technical expertise, community funding, research and advocacy, and by transparently generating policy with the community that considers and balances those issues.
It’s a big deal for us to suspend or remove a .nz domain name. Doing so means all the links, web traffic, and emails using that domain name to connect will stop working. Making that call and getting it wrong is unfair and creates significant risks not just for us but also for everyone who relies on .nz domain names. If you use email, online banking, or local news websites, this means you.
We see some very real and concerning problems with harmful behaviours online, and we know that some people need help right now to deal with the hurt and the fear that some .nz sites are causing. The challenge is to address those problems in ways that are effective for local communities, keep people safe, and uphold the benefits and integrity of the Internet as infrastructure that everyone relies on. These are big issues, and we take them seriously.
That means we have a really high bar in taking unilateral action to remove .nz domain names. Specifically, the .nz rules authorise the temporary suspension of domains in an emergency or exceptional circumstances (for example, terrorist attack, cyber security attack, or force majeure event) where irreparable harm may be caused to any person or the operation or reputation of the .nz domain space. That temporary suspension power is designed to respond to clear cut matters of national significance or infrastructure threat, and the specific matters we are being asked on now don’t cross that bar.
The right forum to enforce content issues is the legal system
Our approach is to work within the legal system and with a range of other parties with the expertise, the resourcing, and the responsibility to judge content and instruct us on what we need to do. Systems like this work best when the right parties do the right jobs for their role. We aren’t the right people to judge what should and shouldn’t be online — we instead should make sure we do our role the best we can.
The New Zealand Police, the Courts, the Department of Internal Affairs, and other non-government organisations have the power to review, judge and enforce what content should and shouldn’t be online. When we are asked by one of those parties to help, we do so quickly and promptly, because we honour their role in our shared system.
We also welcome moves to make these agencies and systems more responsive. We think more effective reporting tools, and steps that make agency action on reporting more responsive, would be an excellent way to make the .nz and the broader Internet safer for everyone.
But this isn’t working now, and we need to do better
We think the system for dealing with harmful, hateful and potentially illegal content online isn’t working as it should. We know there are real concerns right now, real risks right now and real hurt occurring right now too. It isn’t effective enough, and it doesn’t act fast enough.
The solutions to these challenges have to be developed across the parties in the system that we operate, and in looking at who are the right parties to act on issues. The solutions need to be designed with and for the people suffering from this sort of content. Finding better solutions is becoming more urgent as the landscape is shifting.
We know other parts of the system are working on these questions; be it through new procedures and enforcement mechanisms from public agencies, to consideration of new laws about speech and content and how those are enforced online. We also know our own rules and policies have a part to play, and we will continue to evolve those settings with transparency and in consultation with the wider community. Over the last two years, we ran a review of the .nz policies led by an independent panel. The panel considered the issue of harmful content on .nz, and consulted on options to respond to this, ranging from the status quo, to having a code of practice, to several options in-between. We are working through these options and expect to have more to say about this during 2022, including testing our ideas with further community engagement. That may include having some new tools and options at our disposal later on this year.
We encourage people interested in addressing these harms to engage with that process and help us get it right.
We will do our part, and we will work with others to make the system work better
There are solutions to this, and we want to do our part to make this system work better.
Those solutions include:
- We are considering provisions for “trusted notifiers” and domain name suspensions, as recommended by the independent panel who conducted the .nz policy review, and considering how to improve our mechanisms for instruction from those parties when we need to.
- We are working with a range of agencies on how their processes and responsibilities can address content issues, and ensuring our processes link to those.
- We influence laws and regulations that address the issues across the country. These matters are best considered specifically in legislative processes, and if we want to consider issues of content and speech regulation, they’re best done in law rather than done by an organisation like us, specific to the Internet.
- Working together and discussing the settings openly, transparently, and with the community in the way we always have, will always stand.
While it’s tricky, we must get this right, so all the people of Aotearoa New Zealand can benefit from our Internet and .nz.