On several occasions over the years, TorrentFreak has reported on file-sharing platforms being blocked by ISPs, apparently for no reason at all.
On later examination, however, we’ve discovered that organizations such as the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation charity have sometimes collaborated with ISPs to implement blocks, after child exploitation material was found on online platforms.
Blocking whole platforms is unquestionably overkill, a point I raised with the IWF some years ago. However, when you begin to talk with these people – the people who have to view sickening content on a daily basis to prevent child abusers from sharing their filth online – sympathy is very, very easy to find.
They look at this stuff so we don’t have to, and they deserve a medal for doing so. The Internet is undoubtedly a better place thanks to them.
But that brings us to censorship, a topic that everyone has a view on, including whether a certain level of censorship is acceptable, and whether or not it’s good for society. Statistically, few people argue that kids being abused on film is unworthy of censorship, not least because in most regions it’s criminally illegal.
But what about a video of innocent men, women and children being massacred in New Zealand? Should that be censored too? The Mirror newspaper in the UK didn’t think so, and actually put some of the footage on its front page. It was widely condemned for doing so.
That said, the decision whether to censor was a question that Facebook, YouTube, Reddit and dozens of other platforms answered quickly. According to their Terms of Service, such content is disallowed and that conversation – like it or not – is now all but over; their platform, their rules.
One of the big questions that has emerged, however, is whether the powers that be should prevent us from seeing such horrific acts for ourselves, perhaps in order to fully appreciate what we are up against in this so-called civilization of ours.
Did most of us need to witness thousands of people die live on international TV to fully appreciate the horrors of 9/11? Did we really need to see those poor souls throwing themselves out of those burning buildings? Because if we didn’t, it’s now too late. That distressing footage remains on YouTube today.
Never forget 9/11, we all agree, but you can’t forget something you didn’t see for yourself.
So did we really need to witness a lone-gunman massacre innocents live on Facebook to appreciate just how deluded some people can become? Or should we be protected from ourselves, based on the notion that it will deprive extremists of publicity, by those in power who claim to know better?
If those powers include ISPs, the answer is already with us. As widely reported, in the wake of the attack ISPs in both Australia and New Zealand took it upon themselves to begin blocking the terrorist’s video, wherever it could be found online but couldn’t be immediately taken down.
“My cyber security team at Spark has done its best overnight to stay on top of the sites distributing the horrific material from the terrorists. Where they find it, they apply temporary blocks and notify the site, requesting they remove the material,” said Simon Moutter, Managing Director of Spark NZ.
Moutter also took the time to apologize to “legitimate internet users inconvenienced” by the site blockades, an acknowledgment to obvious collateral damage but perhaps understandably pragmatic in the larger scheme of the crisis.
It’s impossible to speak for all of those people negatively affected by the blocks but it’s likely there would’ve been quite a bit of understanding based on the good intentions of Spark, Vodafone, and Vocus, in the much the same way that IWF-ordered blockades are seen as necessary elsewhere, when they occur.
The trouble is, New Zealand’s ISPs may now have backed themselves into a corner in life after the Christchurch massacre. In the blink of an eye they have effectively declared that if they want to become the Internet Police, they will deputize themselves to become the Internet Police.
Vocus, in particular, now appears to have contradicted its former stance.
“SKY’s call that sites be blacklisted on their say so is dinosaur behavior, something you would expect in North Korea, not in New Zealand,” said Vocus last year in response to a request to block The Pirate Bay.
“It isn’t our job to police the Internet and it sure as hell isn’t SKY’s either, all sites should be equal and open,” the company’s uniquivocal statement read at the time.
Of course, no one wishes to trivialize mass murder by comparing it to copyright infringement, it’s obvious to any fool what the priority is here when people are under attack. But important actions over access to information don’t exist in a bubble.
Either ISPs are the Internet Police whenever they deem fit or they are not, and in the absence of legislation stating otherwise, all of these ISPs may have just opened up Pandora’s box.
To be clear, the awful video at the center of this controversy was potentially illegal in New Zealand at the moment it was put online, but even the government there initially declined to definitively declare its status beyond it is “likely to be objectionable content under New Zealand law.”
That position changed Monday when it fell to New Zealand Chief Censor David Shanks to announce that under the Films, Videos & Publications Classification Act 1993, the video is deemed “objectionable” and therefore illegal.
In hindsight, it is not hard to see why the ISPs took the action they did. New Zealand is a peaceful country and the families of its lost citizens (and those from other nations that were also cruelly gunned down) deserve to have their dignities preserved, to the extent possible, in what must have been desperate times.
To that end, the ISPs in question clearly felt that since they were in a position to contribute positively, that’s what they must do. After all, they are all serving the affected communities and, in times of crisis, everyone making a small contribution can make a huge difference. That kind of team effort in response to a disaster is arguably the best of human nature.
However, the barrier to entry – to wider Internet censorship – has now been arguably lowered and there will be plenty of groups standing by with their own sets of demands. Insisting that ISPs aren’t the Internet Police won’t be a position the companies above will be able to hold so easily anymore.
On a personal level, I would’ve been much happier if the two people in my Whatsapp contacts list who sent me the video had been prevented from doing so by owners Facebook. However, that would mean a company interfering with my communications, something that few people want, myself included. Clearly, we have tough choices.
But, ultimately, it didn’t matter, because as an adult, I took control of my own destiny.
I personally chose not to watch the video (explicit text descriptions online were harrowing enough) and I’m hoping that my response to the senders will mean I’ll never receive anything like it again. Not to say I can’t find the video online – anyone can inside 10 mins – but it’s the educated choice of the individual that counts here, not the power of ISPs.
ISPs do not have the power to change human nature – only our life experiences, education, and values can. The monster who perpetrated the crimes last week clearly has severe problems in that area. That being said, seeing such horrors for oneself can sometimes have a positive effect.
A video I viewed on Kazaa (if I recall correctly) in the early 2000s, of what was claimed to be a soldier getting his throat cut, was the best aversion therapy against senseless violence that I have ever experienced. The guy lost his life in the most awful way but if only one good thing came of that, it is the persistent belief that violence and brutality should be avoided at all costs.
We can only hope that most of the people who viewed the video this week experienced a similar epiphany and positive effect – perhaps not fully today, but one that matures with time. But make no mistake, censorship – via blocking or other means – will not change the minds of the twisted, nor those reveling in obstruction while rubbing salt in the wounds.
ISP blockades of any content will always be ineffective against the determined. In the case of pirated content, we already know the only thing that can provide serious momentum to long-term change in New Zealand. But when it comes to the horrors of what transpired last week, change has to come from within.
It is the choice of the individual alone that can help us progress and it’s the only real way to produce any long-term meaningful change. While we dissect the motivations of the killer, we should also consider why no one – not a single person – reported the massacre to Facebook as it was live-streamed.
Censorship will always prove controversial, no matter how well-meaning, but for the ISPs of New Zealand the battle to claim they aren’t the Internet Police may now prove more difficult.
Plenty of groups are queuing up to have them censor content they find objectionable but there’s still a decent chance they won’t exploit that for their own ends. For now, we can only hope that a sense of perspective prevails and that education and compassion will prevent more of these atrocities happening in the future.