Independent regulation should underpin New Zealand’s approach to disinformation, according to Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt.
It comes prior to the impending release of a discussion document formed from an analysis by New Zealand officials of work done overseas to address harmful content, particularly online, and follows widely criticised reform on hate speech.
In a landmark briefing released recently, New Zealanders considered misinformation, including disinformation, to be among the biggest threats to national security.
Disinformation - false or modified information knowingly and deliberately shared to cause harm - could lead to “radicalisation and violence”, according to briefing authors.
It highlighted the elevated risk posed by disinformation and how this could take the form of well-resourced, sophisticated campaigns to push “false or deceptive information”.
Late last year, Microsoft reported Kiwis were subjected to a spike in exposure to Russian disinformation, some of which appeared in the cries of protesters who occupied Parliament’s lawn in February and March this year.
The ability to discuss disinformation was becoming increasingly tense, evidenced by the cancellation of briefings for journalists on political disinformation held by researchers due to safety concerns.
Last week, the Digital Services Act came into force in the European Union (EU) which will, among other things, compel social media companies to “mitigate against risks such as disinformation or election manipulation, cyber violence against women, or harms to minors online”.
In an interview with the Herald, Hunt hoped New Zealand would take note of the tools utilised by the EU and others who looked to update legislation in line with modern communication platforms.
Disinformation had been a regular topic for Hunt in recent months, personally discussing the matter with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the implications of any reform on human rights.
Hunt said he favoured regulation of disinformation through an independent regulatory body that could enforce “basic codes of conduct”, as well as increasing digital media literacy.
However, he said disinformation should not be outlawed until it crossed the line into harmful speech, which he acknowledged was a grey area.
“We do need controls, we do need checks, we do need independent accountability but not rendering the information unlawful, unless it reaches that far end of the spectrum.”
This, in his view, would preserve the integral right to freedom of expression.
Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti, who led the review of media and online content regulation, said a recent trip to Europe had given her valuable insight into how the EU constructed its legislation and how it differed from other territories.
She also said New Zealand officials were co-ordinating with their counterparts in Finland after Tinetti had been impressed by the country’s use of education to combat disinformation.
“Young people that I spoke to had a very acute awareness of mis[information] and disinformation and anything that they were seeing online, their skills that they were able to bring to that were just exceptional.”
The issue added to discussions concerning New Zealand’s hate speech legislation, which had recently been watered down and now only expanded protections to religious groups and did not include women, disabled people and the rainbow community, as it had done initially when proposals spawned after the Royal Commission into the March 15 terror attack.
In a brief statement shortly after the changes were announced, the Human Rights Commission said it was “very disappointed” in Justice Minister Kiri Allan’s new proposal, claiming it failed to protect communities most vulnerable to harmful speech.
Speaking to the Herald, Hunt did not elaborate, choosing instead to keep his powder dry until the commission released a more fulsome statement later this week.