NZ Fry Up: Don’t filter the internet; Telco spend and telco revenue

New Zealand IT, tech, and telco news and views from our editor in Auckland.

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Don’t filter the internet

It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but the FVPCA Bill before Parliament could have a big impact on how New Zealanders access the internet, by legally forcing internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to objectionable websites and apps.

The Films, Video, and Publications Classification Amendment (FVPCA) Bill has been drafted in response to the Christchurch mosque attacks two years ago. It proposes changes to existing law, such as allowing the chief censor to classify a publication without giving reasons immediately (to enable a speedy decision in emergencies) and binding content takedown requests.

It also includes rules to set up legally mandated internet filtering, in Section 119L-O in the bill, which says: “the Department of Internal Affairs may operate an electronic system to prevent access by the public to objectional online publications”.

This has raised the ire of InternetNZ, which manages the .nz domain name. In a briefing document on FVPCA, the organisation labels the proposal an internet filter as “extreme and undemocratic.”

“Filters will not work. They are a blunt tool that is a mile wide and an inch deep. In practice, anyone who wants to [can] bypass filters using common VPN tools, leaving ordinary people in New Zealand to suffer the filter’s side effects on connectivity,” InternetNZ says.

InternetNZ CEO Jordan Carter says while the organisation can support urgent classifications for the chief censor, and proposals to create binding takedown requests for objectionable material, it draws the line at an internet filter. “We support the goals of the bill, which aims to reduce harm from situations like the Christchurch mosque attacks. But though harms from extremist behaviour are a real problem, the proposal for internet filtering is a pseudo-solution at best, and downright dangerous at worst.”

At the time of the Christchurch mosque attacks, most ISPs banded together to prevent their customers, as much as they could, from accessing the terrorist’s content. Carter says this an example of commercial businesses making a judgement, and entirely different to a “state-mandated layer” in which filtering is legally enforced.

Carter accompanied Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when she met with political and global tech company leaders in Paris two months after the Christchurch attacks in May 2019. At that meeting, they discussed a united response to dealing with extremist and violent online content.

It resulted in the Christchurch Call, a pledge by governments, including those in India, France, Canada, Indonesia, and Australia, to address the issue through actions such as “regulatory or policy measures consistent with a free, open, and secure internet and international human rights law.”

Carter says the part of the FVPCA bill that refers to a state-enforced internet filter is inconsistent with this part of the Christchurch Call because it doesn’t fit with the idea of a free and open internet.

The Department of Internal Affairs has for the past decade administered an ‘internet filter’ that prevents access to online child pornography. Carter says the difference with this antipornography system is that it is voluntary for ISPs to join and there is an independent oversight of its operation, in part to prevent scope creep.

The FVPCA Bill is open for submissions until 1 April 2021.

Telco spend and telco revenue

Among the raft of stats and facts about New Zealand’s telco scene in the Commerce Commission’s monitoring report released yesterday, a couple caught our eye.

Firstly, the estimated average household expenditure on telco services in 2019 was 2.42% of total expenditure. Down a tad from 2.46% in 2016.

Too much or too little? It all depends on your point of view.

The report quotes a nationwide ConsumerNZ survey which shows that 41% of consumers were concerned about the everyday cost of telecommunications in 2019. This was down from 49% the previous year.

Secondly, and sort of related, is telco revenue, which in 2019 was $1.6 billion, compared to $1.7 billion in 2018.

Meanwhile, fixed-broadband date usage continues to accelerate due to COVID-19, as has been well documented in the past year. “Average fixed broadband usage per month increased by 77GB this year to 284GB. This represent a growth rate of 37% compared to 2019 when the growth rate was 15%,” the commission’s report notes.

Responding to the report, the NZ Telecommunications Forum (TCF) drew a correlation between the rise in broadband usage and the fall in revenue. “At the same time [as usage increased], total retail telecommunications revenue fell by 4%, reflecting both the impact of strong ongoing competition on retail prices as well as COVID-related revenue losses in some specialised services such as international mobile roaming,” noted TCF CEO Geoff Thorn.

Over in mobile, uncapped data plans rose in popularity, with 14% of residential on-account subscribers and 8% of business on-account subscribers now on uncapped ‘endless’ or ‘unlimited’ mobile bundles.

And we didn’t put the quote marks around those words—the commission did, explaining in the footnotes that “these uncapped data plans are not truly endless or unlimited, as they are subject to fair-use terms and MNOs (mobile network owners) significantly reduce customers’ speeds after a certain amount of data has been consumed.”

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