Netsafe finally gets its act together on the HDCA – sort of… and inadequately

Written By: - Date published: 2:38 pm, November 20th, 2016 - 7 comments
Categories: accountability, internet, journalism, Politics, Social issues, you couldn't make this shit up - Tags: , , , , , ,

Apparently today, Netsafe will finally start acting as the “Approved Agency” of section 7 of the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015. This is an act that is meant to deal with some of the excessive online abuse and bullying. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear to me that Netsafe is currently capable of dealing with the task to the kinds of level that a court or content providers will require it to be. So far I’m completely sceptical that they are competent to do the job.

For this task, Netsafe was apparently given the bulk of a $16.4 million 4 year budget – see “NetSafe piles on staff as it prepares to become Kiwi social media sheriff” by Chris Keall.

From my perspective and based on their history on the net, I think that Netsafe is a piss-poor, incompetent, and quite unskilled choice to operate as the approved agency. As a long-term denizen of computer social networks (I started back in 1980), one who has been into politics for a long time, and a still active if rather ancient computer programmer, I tend to hear about anything that actually affects the local networks through one chain or another. In the last 19 years, Netsafe and its direct ancestor Internet Safety Group have mainly been noticeable on the net by their absence.

Sure they have been concentrating on education about the net. But it has always seemed to me that they have focused on a ruthless self-promotion strategy focused on the technically limited areas like schools, journalists, and people new to the net. In itself, that is a worthy job getting the warning out about such relatively easy tasks as ‘deals too good to miss’ (aka the Nigerian scam), spam, viruses, and highlighting school bullying in the self-involved teen forums.

But that was when they were just another group talking about the net while not actually being participants in it. Now they have changed roles to providing the buffering of the intersection between ‘trolls’, ‘victims’, service providers, net content providers and the legal system, they’re going to have to raise their competence levels considerably. This means in their understanding of social media past the juvie and newbie level, the technical constraints used and possible on content sites, a technical understanding of the net, and an understanding of the actual law that they are meant to buffer.

Unfortunately nothing in their history or what they are apparently doing today indicates that they are capable of doing the job required in the HDCA. For instance section 8 (1) (d) of the act states :-

8 Functions and powers of Approved Agency

(1) The functions of the Approved Agency are—

(d) to establish and maintain relationships with domestic and foreign service providers, online content hosts, and agencies (as appropriate) to achieve the purpose of this Act:

Yeah right. What I see is a deafening silence on the net about any attempt to contact New Zealand social network providers. Certainly I’ve never been contacted. The chatter around the net and the blogs doesn’t indicate that any approaches have been made to any of the other blogs and forums about Netsafe’s role as approved agency.

Looking at Netsafe’s recent activities, it just appears that they have been hobnobbing with agencies and non-line staff from larger corporates who have bugger all to do with the day to day operations of any content or service provider. While I’m sure that is good social experience, it does not bode well for actuallybeing able to do the job that they have undertaken.

For instance see their HDCA page which just has some words lifted straight out of the act. The only public effort that appears to have been made was a “Confronting Online Harm” conference from a few days ago. For that they charged participants $199 each. When you look at the #netsafecoht twitter feed on that conference you realise that there appears to be few (if any) actual content providers in this conference, bugger all (if any) corporate operations people, and absolutely no bloggers (tell me if I stand to be corrected).

The only competent persons worthy of respect that I saw referenced were Judge Harvey who operates at the bottom of the cliff, and some vague mentions of InternetNZ. Most of the speakers were from offshore and were pretty useless academics (as in I wouldn’t pay to listen to them). It appeared that it was a conference that was largely disconnected from our local network, and focused on schools – which is Netsafes traditional territory. Reading between the lines, the ‘industry’ people present were just those who are employed in reducing liability. In other words it was a useless talkfest.

When you look for information of how Netsafe are planning to actually operate their role in the HCDA, there is absolutely nothing visible on the net that has any relevance for “domestic and foreign service providers, online content hosts”. There is nothing about the types of issues that will be faced, the desired responses and the best practices in contacting sites to deal with idiots who step beyond fair comment, or any of the other multitudinous things that would be required to deal with possible offences under this.

Even their “Report to Netsafe” is clearly inadequate for even looking at a complaint under the act. In Chris Keall’s article it stated the government estimated that the approved agency would be dealing with 10,000 complaints per year. Sure that doesn’t look so bad when you break it down to an average 27-28 complaints per day. But… speaking as someone who has an MBA in operations and is a fan of Murphy’s law when it comes to queuing theory, it isn’t going to work like that.

The load will be highly variable and so will the time taken to deal with each complaint. Some will take person-minutes, and others will take person-weeks. The key to dealing with any net complaint is to give instructions to help them find the required information themselves before they complain. In other words put it up so it is highly visible on the net so that complainants know what they need to provide. This isn’t exactly rocket science. Any complaint service centre could tell them that.

In particular Netsafe, as the approved agency, should read and act on the specific requirement placed in the act – section 24 (3) (c) states :-

(3) A notice of complaint must—
(c) sufficiently enable the specific content to be readily located; and

It is damn hard to find material on the net or even inside a site. For a sites with considerable online material like ours,  which has 19,450 published posts and 1,168,585 published comments at the time I am writing this post, it requires a link to find anything. That is because for anyone who isn’t a programmer, finding a specific comment using the inadequate descriptions given by complainants is damn near impossible. Even for me it is often hard.

Complainants are usually hard to get clear information from – especially the complaints that have no basis on which to complain.

For instance, earlier this year I had a complaint that an unspecified authors on this site must have used private information about who the complainant was – specifically matching up IP numbers to find out her identity on both our site and that in another site. This would have been in violation of communication principle 1 of the HDCA “A digital communication should not disclose sensitive personal facts about an individual.” (see section 6).

At the time, I happened to be either in transit or wandering around Hong Kong and Frankfurt airports on my way to a job in Italy – which made dealing with the complaint in a timely manner difficult. For proof she was offering up disconnected quotes of a conversation on the another unspecified site.

The problem was that it took several increasingly irritated emails from me to find out that it was a comment on Reddit. It took even more to get a link into the actual comment(s) she was referring to. After I looked it, it was obvious that whoever the person was that was dissing her, they recognised her style and obsessions from the similar public comments that she’d made on our site and probably others. But it took me hours to deal with what should have been a simple complaint if I’d had a link. Yet there is absolutely nothing on the complaint reporting page in Netsafe to get information to locate and report accurate links.

A report in today’s NZ Herald does rather highlight this simple lack of understanding of how the net really works outside of the kiddies area. Just read the title… “New hotline to have trolls investigated“. Say what. As much as I detest trolls online, they are not the target of the HCDA. Most of them are just simple uncivil jerks, but bugger all of them do anything that could be considered as getting toward criminal. And a phone call? Has anyone at Netsafe actually attempted to get a URL to any dynamic site comment from someone over a phone? They should educate themselves and try it sometime.

Basically the whole article just pointed out to me just how unready Netsafe appears to be in dealing with their responsibilities under the HDCA.

For instance talking to Tony Veitch about the HDCA and public figures being criticised about their behaviour on the net seems to me to be a remarkably stupid idea – see “Veitch avoids jail term, says experience ‘hideous‘”.

When I read that article this morning, which spent a lot of time talking about some sporting figures (none of whom I knew of), I kept coming back to the thought that it was Tony Veitch that Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker was talking to. Was he really trying to push some kind of daft agenda that kicking a woman in the back and damaging her spine shouldn’t be criticised in public. It just made wonder what the other public sporting figures had actually done?

Talk about a PR disaster for Netsafe. It made them look like their operation was designed to protect guilty public figures from criticism of their offending.

Arrggghh! Bloody hell, Netsafe are the bozos who are meant to the primary point of contact for the Act. Sure they are there to help the victims of cyber-bullying. But they are also there to protect the Bill of Rights Act freedoms (Section 6 (2) (b)) – which they don’t mention on their site at all

Last year when I was writing about an early stuffup in the courts on the HDCA (“Judge scammed by a legal idiot and his pet pest“), I wrote a comment about how I anticipated the approved agency would operate. I think that we have the monkeys as an approved agency and they are going to be largely a waste of time and money. So far I think I was spot on.

I’m pretty sure that the MoJ is going to screw up that. They will continue to think that the bulk of the work will come from juveniles. But I suspect that will not be the case.

Most of the complainants will be from the adult fringes or by people who think that what they think is ‘correct’ behaviour is what the law requires. Certainly EVERY instance I have seen so far of people straining at the leash for using the HDCA have been adults wanting to shut up critics of their behaviour.

The Approved Agency requires people who know a lot about law, the infrastructure of the net, and the limits to operating forums on it. They will also have to have the respect of the operators of sites who have been operating in that space for decades.

What we will get will be low price unskilled monkeys who are either going to be ineffective in getting changes or are just operational pests. After all they will be a lot easier to scam than the court system proved to be in this case.

In the longer term Steven Price will be correct. But it will take a long time.

It is going to take a lot of unpaid valuable time by the people operating in the net to batter the Approved Agency(ies) to the point that they don’t have to be led by the hand through the minefield of their own ignorance. Like all new organisations, the participants are likely to have an exalted opinion about what they can or cannot do and over/underestimate what they are permitted/required to do. The cottonwool legal protections in the Act for them are going to act as a buffer to them being able to learn in a more robust fashion.

At present I’m uncertain of if I want to cooperate in their training, or if I just demonstrate the hard way on the limits of what they can do. However either way, I have been drafted by the state through legislation to perform it. That is quite irritating.

If anyone gets tangled up with this approved agency – please contact me and tell me what is happening. I can see that Netsafe has a lot to learn about the net.

7 comments on “Netsafe finally gets its act together on the HDCA – sort of… and inadequately”

  1. Draco T Bastard 1

    It made them look like their operation was designed to protect guilty public figures from criticism of their offending.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if that was exactly what it was designed to do. Lèse-majestéy laws sit which part of the political spectrum you think? With capitalists as the new aristocrats.

  2. adam 2

    A silly law, run by silly people trying to monitor for people being offended. I know that not the point of the act, but that is what it is going to turn into. The “I was offended” law. Nothing about kids, more about so called adults who can’t handle a bit of truth now and again.

    Great Post Iprent, really cuts through the crap. I’m not surprised it has turned out pretty much as you called it. It’s a law that won’t work, I’m not sure why they passed it as they did. They could have just tweaked the crimes act. At this point nothing this government does surprise me, to busy looking cool, rather than actually addressing the issues

  3. Ross 3

    Was he really trying to push some kind of daft agenda that kicking a woman in the back and damaging her spine shouldn’t be criticised in public. It just made wonder what the other public sporting figures had actually done?

    There was no mention of anyone criticising Veitch. I don’t imagine any criticism of him would be an issue as long as it was reasonable.

    I raised an issue with Steven Price some time ago that it might be difficult to get certain material taken down promptly because the host might think it’s fair criticism. I imagine there will be much to-ing and fro-ing over what is bullying and what is fair criticism.

    • lprent 3.1

      I would expect that there will be considerable toing and froing. Especially since I suspect that the type of people that they will hire would be more akin to teachers than to the bluntness of adult workers, engineers, or anyone who wasn’t intimately involved in trying to civilize children. That is after all where the majority of Netsafe’s effort has been in the last couple of decades.

      The problem is that they don’t as yet understand just how many frivolous adult complainants are out there, nor how grumpy tech heads like me get with explaining the bleeding obvious to people who aren’t paying us.

      More importantly; I suspect that they won”t deign to examine the vast body of precedent of either defamation law or freedom of speech and association until, judges start pointing it out by dismissing their claims based on past experience. We all just wind up with a pile of illiterate and ill informed Mrs Grundys to educate about a world that they are ill suited to understand.

    • lprent 3.2

      On your comment about Tony Veitch, as you pointed out the article didn’t mention it. But I am

      1. Completely uninterested in sport, so had no idea of the othef examples mentioned.

      2. Have some pretty vivid memories of the case against Veitch, his arrogance about being charged at all, and the apparent inadequecy of the sentence.

      3, probably somewhat older than the journo. NZME do appear to specialize in the very shallow tgese days, and their reporters tend to be aged accordingly and cheaply.

      WhIle i would comply with an order on a comment like that, I would also be demanding a hearing and expecting to call Netsafe’s staff to justify their position to a judge. Basically we are pretty harsh on anything that does exceed the boundaries of law and behaviiur here. But we also don’t constrain how people word their thoughts if they are capable of having any

  4. Clump_AKA Sam 4

    Mike Pompeo appointed as Trumps CIA chief.

    Snip: Pompeo favored expanding US surveillance powers substantially, to include “re-establishing collection of all metadata”

    By all I assume Pompeo means ours as well. It’s hypothetical but this is like watching Cobra Command get taken over by Hydra.

    Full article: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/18/jeff-sessions-attorney-general-trump-cabinet

  5. SayMyName 5

    “Most of the complainants will be from the adult fringes or by people who think that what they think is ‘correct’ behaviour is what the law requires. Certainly EVERY instance I have seen so far of people straining at the leash for using the HDCA have been adults wanting to shut up critics of their behaviour.”

    So if a moderator here bitch-slaps someone for not following the rules does that mean that someone can then go whinging to NetSafe?

    Yes. Yes it does. Which is just one reason the HDCA is daft.

    And if someone does complain what then? Will moderators on this site be required by NetSafe to tone it down? I’m no fan of the moderation style here but if it is the case that Netsafe can tell moderators on a blog how to act then we should all be extremely concerned.

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