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Anti-terror measures vs digital freedom

At the annual NetHui conference, digital freedom advocates raised concerns about the potential to misuse anti-terror initiatives to crack down on legitimate speech, Marc Daalder reports.

The presenters at the annual NetHui conference, held this year at Te Papa in Wellington and headlined by Jacinda Ardern, unanimously support the Christchurch Call. At the same time, many worry about the potential for misuse of the Call and similar initiatives like the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT).

In particular, these advocates noted that less democratic or transparent governments could justify crackdowns on legitimate dissent as anti-terror measures. They also worried that non-terrorist content - or even just content documenting but not advocating terrorism - could be targeted.

Such misuse has the potential to harm the marginalised communities that the initiatives are intended to protect, they say.

"Any of these policies that seek to shut down or eradicate terrorism from the internet - and yes, there are absolutely things that we need to take down, I'm in full agreement on that - can also have the effect of harming marginalised communities," said Jillian York, the free expression director at the Berlin-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Legitimate dissent at risk

York gave one of the two keynote addresses at the conference. During her speech, she highlighted a drive by the European Parliament to mandate that tech giants remove "content promoting terrorism" within an hour.

"That sounds fine in theory," she said. "But in practice, what does that mean? In this case, what does 'content promoting terrorism' mean? What does 'terrorism' mean?"

"It sounds like an easy problem but the US, the EU, New Zealand, the government of Jordan, all of these governments all over the world don't agree on what that means."

"Jordan I bring up as an example because it's one of the governments that has joined the Christchurch Call, but it's also a government that has used its own terrorism laws to silence journalists."

In Indonesia, the government shut down the internet in the disputed territory of West Papua for almost a month in August. Protesters claimed that police had discriminated against ethnically Papuan students but the government asserted it was fighting terrorism.

Around the same time, India shut down internet access for weeks in Kashmir, an area it controls but which is also claimed by Pakistan, amid protests over the upcoming annexation of the territory.

Protesters against the new military government in Sudan also experienced an internet shutdown in June.

Some violent content has value

York also examined how a kneejerk reaction to censor all "terrorism" content can backfire. "We've got tech companies deleting evidence of war crimes," she said.

She works with Syrian Archive, a non-profit that has been "mining YouTube to find videos that could potentially be used in war crimes tribunals against the government of Syria, Libya, Ukraine and now a few others".

"What they've found is that YouTube is systematically deleting those videos. Now, these are videos that capture the actions of terrorists but they're not promoting terrorism and yet they fall under these policies - both the EU policy and YouTube's own standards."

David Shanks, New Zealand's Chief Censor, acknowledged these concerns. "We've heard concerns around terrorist promotional material that might be used to effectively block important records of violence or atrocities or state overreach in other countries," he said.

"That's something that we live and breathe in my office. We're very conscious that when we see what I'd call a 'torture/kill' video from somewhere like Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, sometimes there's value in that. Sometimes we can't tell tell what's going on here and how important that might be in terms of legal outcomes or evidence or denunciation of what's going on."

"We're cognisant of that. We're totally aware that we can't ban that sort of material without having a clear view on [whether] this is promotion of a terrorist cause," he said. It has to be communicating that "this is what we do in the name of this terrorist cause and if you are one of us, you will do the same".

No panacea

"There is no panacea, there is no silver bullet," York said. "We have to remember that hard problems require a diversity of actors to solve. I come into this room as a free speech advocate but I love that I have the opportunity to work together with victims' advocates and other voices in the room."

That's the approach that the Christchurch Call has also sought to take, forming a civil society advisory panel with representatives like York, the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand and policy shops and think tanks. This panel is meant to give counsel to the governments and tech companies that compose the Call.

By contrast, Facebook's new oversight board has been criticised for the lack of civil society involvement. "Facebook can't be the one to choose the people. I was so disappointed in that," York said.

Anjum Rahman, the acting head of the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand, echoed this criticism for the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. "The central board of GIFCT, I really think we need to have independence on the board. To find a mechanism to get those members that isn't controlled by the big companies," she said.

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