Politics

Spark blocks 8chan after Chief Censor backs ISP action

One of New Zealand's major internet providers has confirmed it will block the controversial 8chan website after the Chief Censor offered his backing - but Spark says the Government must step up too.

The founder of 8chan, an online forum with far-right political leanings, has called for it to be shut down after the message board was linked to at least three mass shootings in the past six months.

Now, David Shanks - New Zealand's Chief Censor - has said he "would support any domestic ISP that decided that in these extreme circumstances they would no longer link NZ customers to 8chan".

Kiwi internet providers had refused to entertain the idea, even as 8chan's body count rose - but Spark has become the first to break ranks and take action.

Responding to this article after it was published on the subscriber-only Newsroom Pro service on Thursday afternoon, Spark chief executive Jolie Hodson said on Twitter the company would step in.

"We’d prefer it was the Chief Censor with the power to make blocking orders rather than private companies, but I agree more needs be done now to make the internet safer for kiwi families so we’d voluntarily start blocking this site from tomorrow given the repeat transgressions," Hodson said.

That we even have to rely on private companies like Spark and Vodafone to take action shows the patchwork regulatory framework for grappling with online hate - particularly when there is a link between hateful words and real-life atrocities.

8chan linked to killings

The latest round of global outrage over 8chan began in the minutes after a Texas man allegedly slaughtered 22 people in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, a predominately Hispanic community, on Sunday (NZT). The suspect released a manifesto onto the website, elaborating on his white supremacist views and citing the Christchurch terror attack as an inspiration.

8chan was also a go-to source for the alleged gunmen in the Christchurch terror attack and Poway, California synagogue shooting. The suspects in both massacres posted manifestos or documents explaining their ideology and actions to the message board before or after they opened fire.

The website also plays host to QAnon, a conspiracy theory that posits cryptic postings on the message board are actually from US President Donald Trump or a Trump-aligned official who has infiltrated a supposed American "deep state".

"I don't see this as magically different in kind than a lot of sorts of regulation that we already do. There are also laws against distributing hateful material via the postal system, for example."

After revelations about its role in the latest mass killing, 8chan was dumped on Monday by its security company, CloudFlare, and its domain host. This decision was applauded by Shanks.

"We ... welcome the recent announcement by CloudFlare, who have decided to terminate their service to 8chan, noting that it had 'repeatedly proven itself to be a cesspool of hate'. Hatred like this does not need to be tolerated on the internet, or anywhere," he said.

While 8chan has been offline for at least 24 hours, there's no reason to think it won't be online again soon, according to Shanks. "It remains to be seen when, and in what guise, 8chan may re-emerge on the internet," he said.

The neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, which has faced similar straits and is still accessible today, shows the resilience of far-right websites.

No legal impediment

That means there might need to be another solution to shutting down 8chan. One possibility, at least in New Zealand, is have internet service providers (ISPs) like Spark, Vodafone, and 2degrees block access to the site.

ISPs banded together after Christchurch to block temporarily 8chan and a handful of other far-right sites hosting the alleged shooter's manifesto and video, but the ban was lifted after a few weeks.

Victoria University of Wellington law school lecturer Dr Marcin Betkier specialises in internet law, and says that there's no legal reason that ISPs couldn't block 8chan at any time. Such an action could block specific parts of the website or block the entire site at the DNS level.

"They have contracts with customers and, as far as I know, those contracts have quite broad terms related to restricting service," Betkier said.

Shanks urged ISPs to consider their responsibilities to "protect New Zealanders from harmful content".

Chief Censor David Shanks says he would support any New Zealand ISPs that chose to block 8chan. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

"Domestic ISPs have obligations to provide their customers with access to the internet according to their individual terms and conditions.  Within those constraints, as the experience post the March 15 attacks show, in extraordinary circumstances our ISPs can act and do the right thing."

Betkier said that while "there might be some concerns around possible discrimination or restriction in terms of freedom of expression, it's a long-shot".

It was these concerns that InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter latched onto in a statement.

"It does not make sense for internet service providers to make decisions about what material New Zealanders should and should not see," Carter said.

"There is no debate that there is some dark corners on the internet. As a country, we need to make careful decisions about who should have the ability to block any parts of the internet."

However, there is precedent for blocking websites. The Department of Internal Affairs maintains a list of child pornography websites that ISPs agree to block access to. But the Government has so far declined to pursue blocking far-right websites more permanently.

NZ law 'massively behind'

When asked whether she would like to see 8chan shut down, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded, "Look, those aren’t decisions for me. What I want to make sure, though, is that we do what we can to create a regulatory environment where we do not see violent extremism and violence and terrorism circulated online. We do have a sense of responsibility to try and create that framework."

Eddie Clark, a public law lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, agrees that New Zealand is not equipped to deal with websites like 8chan.

"There is no obvious legal reason why we would treat publication on the internet any differently than publication in a newspaper or a flyer or that sort of thing. It's the practical reality of whether you can actually regulate it in the way that we do regulate media and distribution," he said.

"I don't see this as magically different in kind than a lot of sorts of regulation that we already do. There are also laws against distributing hateful material via the postal system, for example. The law on technological stuff is just massively behind in how you apply the basic principles [of existing regulations] in a new technological context."

Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman, who has been outspoken on the issue of online hate and the need for a review into hate speech, also took issue with the existing legal framework.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman says New Zealand needs clearer laws on public safety issues related to threatening online content. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

"After Christchurch, some internet service providers decided to block websites with which the terrorist was associated. This is good, but it is not enough to leave this up to private corporate entities," she said.

"Instead, the law must be clear around this emerging public safety issue. We already restrict websites that host child pornography, we restrict websites that repeatedly violate copyright; we must develop tools to regulate content that threatens the rights and safety of vulnerable groups," she said.

As it stands, the lack of this framework means the power to shut down access to 8chan lies in the hands of companies like Vodafone and Spark, who don't currently plan on taking any action.

Spark spokesperson Anaru Tuhi told Newsroom, "We don't block websites. The Christchurch event was a totally different scenario. It was something unprecedented."

But after this story was published, Spark decided that position could no longer hold. A spokesman told Newsroom on Friday morning that while 8chan was currently offline due to its most recent hosting company terminating its service, the company would block "normal access to the website" if it came back online.

"We feel it is the right thing to do given the website’s repeated transgressions and continual willingness to distribute disturbing material."

Govt needs 'robust policy framework'

Spark challenged the Government to step up, with the spokesman saying the company had "taken a consistent view that the appropriate agencies...should put in place a robust policy framework to address the important issues surrounding such material being distributed online and freely available".

"As an internet service provider, we don’t make these decisions lightly and want to work with Government, the wider industry and civil society organisations to make the internet a better place for New Zealanders."

Vodafone spokesperson Nicky Preston declined to specifically respond to a question about blocking 8chan. She said Vodafone NZ CEO Jason Paris stood by his comments on March 15 that "terrorism won’t get any oxygen from" Vodafone.

2degrees did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

* This article has been updated following publication to reflect Spark's decision to block 8chan.

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