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Government censorship - a concern that should not be ignored

Nuku'alofa, Tonga


There is no disputing the excellent efforts by the Hon. Minister to ensure Children’s Cyber-Safety (Parliament passes Bills to control internet access) is the centrepiece of this bill amongst others. There is never a place for online child-abuse material in any society, Tonga included.

A few concerns/questions however, regarding the legislated “Mandatory Filtering” of internet content rushed through the House after just two days of discussions.

Kupu 108 fekau’aki mo ha me’angaue sivi ngaahi me’a ‘initaneti.

The proposed “Mandatory Filtering” process refers to blocking of internet websites with age-inappropriate content and/or child-abuse material. The proposed filter that the Hon. Minister refers to is to be implemented at an ISP (Internet Service Provider) level (e.g. TCC/Digicel) thus a ‘blacklist’ will be compiled by a government body and then handed over to TCC/Digicel to block access to those websites. It is unclear how this list will be managed (responsibilities and the accountable body) – who defines what is ‘inappropriate” and what isn’t?  It is difficult to understand a mechanism by which a single body could manage internet content regulation in a transparent, efficient and timely manner. A far more effective compromise would be to mandate that ISPs block websites (with child-abuse material) that feature on an INTERPOL block list. Thus the management of what is added or removed from such a list is NOT within the reach of a single government agency.

Kupu 106 Lao Fetu’utaki 2015 fekau’aki mo e mafai fakatokanga

The bill includes what was described as a “Take Down Notice” – the authority of a government body to look at complaints from the general public regarding a particular website or online content that is problematic or inappropriate (ko ha me’a faka’initaneti ‘oku palopalema pe ‘oku kovi (hūfanga pē he fakatapu) ha ngaahi me’a ‘oku ‘ikai ke taau mo ‘etau nofo). This is effectively investing power in the same government body to have a reported site blacklisted as well. This is a major concern where a single body is tasked with the responsibility of defining what it deems ‘problematic’ or ‘inappropriate’, furthermore, the scope of the ‘black list’ can potentially expand to block websites that are politically motivated, websites that may be used by whistle-blowers, personal blogs and opinions and may extend to social media sites etc. thus impinging on our freedom of speech. I understand that this is probably not what the Hon. Minister had in mind but it should have been raised for dialogue in the House and give it the proper time and attention it requires prior to a final vote. By allowing a government body to decide what a society is able to view online borders on a society being closely monitored and eventually censored.

Kupu 107 Me’a sivi to’o ki tu’a.

The Hon. Minster described this section of the bill as ‘Opt Out Filtering’ – meaning, TCC/Digicel will automatically block ALL sites as mandated by Government whether customers like it or not and more importantly whether customers are aware of it or not. The customer then has a choice to ask the ISPs to remove the filters in place. It is unclear as to whether thi is a partial removal of some filters and not all, or a complete removal of all filters which will undermine the stated goal to prevent access to inappropriate content? What is loud and clear though is that someone sitting behind an office desk somewhere will make that call for the rest of us.

The technical limitations to this approach is that, theoretically, filtering works on website content only. Filtering will not apply to other means of internet traffic such as email, chat, or peer-to-peer applications – thus, it will NOT mitigate the risks to children associated with them. It is important to point out that the internet is a network and NOT a broadcast medium – meaning, internet traffic can take a number of different paths to reach its destination. As such, internet filtering is a flawed technology in that it can be easily circumvented via proxy servers, VPN or other similar services. Attempting to regulate a ‘distributed system’ requires a more sophisticated approach, and in many cases, extremely expensive and unreliable. Funding spent on unreliable technology would almost certainly be more effective spent on parental education and supervision including funding to look closely at ways to implement PC-level filtering, which can be customized to individual families as required.

Editor, the concerns are valid and there is a need to look closely at measures to ensure the safety of children online, however, regulating internet content using filtering technologies and administered by a single government body not only provides a false sense of security but the potential to evolve into full censorship is a concern that should not be ignored. In 2007, the Australian Communications and Media Authority in response to a Ministerial direction to investigate developments in internet filtering technologies and other safety initiatives to protect - amongst others - minors who access content online, reported that online risks have shifted from risks associated with static content to risks associated with children interacting with other users online– thus the focus should be on education and empowerment to ensure parents and children are safe online rather than a government legislated filter.