Vodafone NZ, Spark and 2degrees have blocked access to a website selling a depraved video game based on the March 15 Christchurch mosque massacres.
But the telcos have also expressed reservations to the Herald about their temporary role as cybercops while the government to formulate a more permanent solution to online terror content - which could take the form of a filter run by Internal Affairs.
Chief Censor David Shanks yesterday gave the game an "Objectionable" rating, meaning it is illegal to view or distribute on pain of fine of up to $10,000 or up to 14 years prison (sanctions that are more than abstract after Philip Neville Arps was sentenced to 21 months' jail for sharing a copy of the alleged shooter's video).
A document said to have been shared by the terrorist who killed two people in Halle, Germany earlier this month, has also been outlawed.
Shanks reached out to New Zealand ISP's to notify them of its classification of the game, and asked that they consider what steps they can take to protect their customers from the illegal content.
Spark and Vodafone - who between them control around 70 per cent of the retail broadband market - both responded by blocking the website that distributes the game.
"As a business, we don't believe it's appropriate for ISPs to decide what New Zealanders can or cannot access," Vodafone NZ spokesman Rich Lewellyn said.
"However in this, instance, as the Chief Censor has classified the content of a video game as objectionable and as it is clearly seeking to exploit the Christchurch attacks, we will block the site* that is selling this hateful game.
"That said, this approach can only ever be a temporary solution to a bigger problem. We urge the government to speed up the current process underway to develop a broader and more formal framework to address extremist content online."
Spark spokesman Andrew Pirie said, "We are extremely reluctant in taking on a role of unilaterally censoring what our customers can or cannot access online. [But] Spark has decided to block access by our customers to the website that is selling the banned video game. It clearly aims to glorify the gunman involved in the Christchurch shootings, make money off this atrocity, and has now been banned by the Chief Censor.
"It is hard to see reasons why any decent New Zealander would want to purchase and play this video game, especially as it is now illegal to do so following the Chief Censor's ruling."
Hate manifesto not blocked
Spark would not be taking any "extraordinary steps" to block the Halle document, Pirie said. "It would be much more difficult and problematic for Spark to identify and unilaterally block the many different websites and online forums across the internet where the manifesto document might be located,' he said.
"That said, we expect that some of the sites hosting this document are already blocked by our Netshield filter product that Spark's broadband customers can choose to use as an opt-in service."
Vodafone's Llewellyn said, "Blocking access to websites is a blunt tool and can result in censoring legitimate content. In the case of the website hosting the game, there do not appear to be unintended consequences - whereas blocking any and all sites that may be carrying the so-called Halle manifesto is incredibly challenging and will likely restrict legitimate content.
"For this reason, we urge the government to speed up the current process underway to develop a broader and more formal framework to address extremist content online."
A second filter, this time for terror
Pirie said Spark was supportive, in principle, of the Government's intention to introduce and administer a filter system for terrorist and violent extremist content, similar to the filter that the Department of Internal Affairs already has in place to block New Zealanders' access to child-exploitation content.
But that's a work-in-progress.
"While our strong preference is for a government-led response to be put in place as soon as possible, in the absence of this we have been prepared to take extraordinary action in extreme circumstances where there is a clear, compelling case," Pirie said.
Vocus has added the site distributing the banned game to its Family Filter.
2degrees spokesman Mat Bolland said his company had joined Vodafone and Spark in banning the game but, likewise, added, "We want a more enduring solution. We're supporting efforts to establish a centralised filter."
The major telcos also blocked websites distributing the shooter's video and hate pamphlet (both banned by the Chief Censor) in the immediate wake of the March 15 shootings, and extended their ban at the government's request.
"We followed that up more recently with our decision to block the 8Chan site - should it come back online," Pririe said. Vodafone NZ took the same stance.
"The primary lens we are applying is doing the right thing by our customers. That is, what would our customers expect us to do in these circumstances," Prie said.
But both Spark and Vodafone say, ideally, they should not be the ones deciding which lens gets applied.
InternetNZ controls the .nz domain. Its head, Jordan Carter, said in August that although his organisation has adopted emergency measures post March 15 that allow it to make certain sites inaccessible to New Zealanders, or at least very difficult to discover - like the major ISPs, he didn't want to play sheriff.
The Government needed to clarify if the Chief Censor, Police or another agency - or combination of agencies - should make a call about which content to block, he told the Herald.
Vodafone and Spark say they are both monitoring the current efforts, which could lead to some kind of Internal Affairs-run anti-terror filter that blocks banned content.
"We will continue to engage with government and non-governmental agencies, online platforms and civil society, about how the mechanism might apply," Llewellyn says.
But he adds that there are a number of outstanding questions, including "who will determine what constitutes as extremist content, how the filter can be applied, and will it be able to differentiate between legitimate use and extremist content hosted on the same site. We will continue to work with relevant officials as they determine specifics."