As Australia's ICT Minister Stephen Conroy faces a Titstorm and internet black-outs in protest of his mandatory internet filter, New Zealand has quietly been working on its own, due for launch by the end of next month.
(New Zealand Map image by Marcus Holland-Moritz, CC2.0)
The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) began work on the filter "in response to community expectations that the government and the internet service providers (ISPs) should do more to provide a safe internet environment," New Zealand's DIA said in a statement.
Branded the Digital Child Exploitation Filtering System, the filter uses "White Box" software from Netclean of Sweden. According to New Zealand's National Business Review, it cost DIA NZ$150,000, which then further customised it.
It has been trialled for two years and features a blacklist of more than 7000 child pornography websites, which, like Australia's list, will remain private, because the department believed displaying a list would make a "directory" for offenders to use, the DIA said in its statement.
"The system operates by populating the routing tables of a participating ISP so that a request for the [internet protocol] IP address of a website containing child sexual abuse images results in a first 'hop' to the Department's server," it said.
"If there is a match to the particular web page that is being blocked then the requester is presented with a "blocking page" stating that access to the requested page is illegal. If there is no match, then the requester is permitted through to the internet.
"The Department's system preserves the anonymity of any person that is blocked by not keeping a record of their IP address. Users who believe they have been prevented from accessing legitimate content may fill in an anonymous request that a site on the filtering list be checked."
Furthermore, the system will be overseen by an Independent Reference Group, nominated by the DIA, made up of representatives from enforcement agencies, the Office of Film and Literature Classification, child welfare groups, ISPs and internet users.
We have watched the Australian proposal with interest and have observed the debate that surrounds it.
NZ Department of Internal Affairs
The New Zealand system will be voluntary for ISPs and aims to be milder than the Australian one, by just focussing on child porn instead of "refused classification" sites which also include subjects such as fetishes and terrorism.
This could be why the NZ filter has not been greeted with the same level of outrage that Australia's has been, though opposition to it has surfaced, from groups who fear it could extend to other "objectionable" areas and become compulsory like Australia's planned filter.
They also have voiced concerns about the fact that unlike the Australian filter plan, which has come under much public scrutiny, the New Zealand equivalent has bypassed parliamentary procedures such as Bills, white papers and select committee processes.
Opposed group Tech Liberty spokesperson Thomas Beagle says the DIA had "no real authority [to develop the filter, but] they decided to do it".
It did so using the 1993 Video and Publications Act, which makes no reference to the internet, he said.
No fresh Act meant no chance for it to be vetted by a select committee in parliament, no accountability and no chance for the public to react, according to Beagle.
It hasn't been secret but the DIA has been "quiet", he said.
With the filter now weeks away, Beagle has called on internet users to write to their MPs saying they oppose the filter, and threaten to switch ISPs should they adopt it voluntarily.
Furthermore, he believed such filters do not work, as pornographers can use peer-to-peer networking and find other ways around them. Instead, the DIA should "infiltrate the [porn] traders and shut [them] down".
Beagle has been backed by Internet New Zealand, which issued a statement and report late last month, opposing any centralised internet filter.
Internet New Zealand spokesperson Jordan Carter warned that such a centralised filter would leave parents believing the net was safe.
"The filter would only help at the margin, and child abuse material would still be available," Carter warned.
"The filter would also disrupt the end-to-end connectivity that has made the internet the useful tool it is today. It creates some confidentiality concerns, and is not subject to the usual lawful checks and balances that apply to all other parts of New Zealand's censorship regimes," he continued.
The DIA admitted it had never said its filtering system would be "a silver bullet" but said anything to reduce the market for child porn will help.
"While not an investigative tool, the website filtering system will complement the investigation that our officers conduct on peer-to-peer networks tracking down New Zealanders who trade in child sexual abuse images. We have a history of successful prosecutions," it said in a statement.
The statement acknowledged that while parliamentary procedures were bypassed, separate legislation was not necessary as the filter was voluntary.
"The Department is subjected to parliamentary scrutiny annually and Members of Parliament are free to question the minister of Internal Affairs at any one time. The fact that the system is voluntary provides an important assurance that the system will keep its stated purpose and that concerns about 'scope creep' are unfounded. Should ISPs be concerned about the direction of the filtering system, they are able to withdraw."
"We have watched the Australian proposal with interest and have observed the debate that surrounds it. We recognise the importance of being as open and responsive about our system as possible," DIA said.