Netsafe works with social media firms on new safety code, user-advocates wince at first draft

Netsafe – the lead agency for the Harmful Digital Communications Act – has released a draft internet safety code.

But user-advocacy groups say while social media companies have been heavily involved in the draft, affected communities have been sidelined.

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They also have issues with the fact the code’s administrator (who will be drawn from Netsafe) will be part-funded by the social media firms, and that the code was negotiated by chief executive Martin Cocker with representatives from Meta (aka Facebook), Google, Twitter and TikTok.

The introduction to the draft says: “Recent research by Netsafe shows one in five adults and twice as many young people in Aotearoa New Zealand received a digital communication that negatively impacted their life in 2020.

“As 2021 has progressed, Netsafe is continuing to record a new ‘high’ in the number of
reports related to harmful digital communication. Experiences like this, directly and indirectly, can cause physical, financial, and psychological harm; decrease user confidence; and undermine investment in the digital economy and society.”

The code’s provisions call on the social media platforms to work with Netsafe to help prevent objectionable or harmful content appearing online; to take steps against hate steps and bullying; to introduce support programmes and programmes to raise awareness, and to improve reporting procedures.

At this point, there is no detail on specific measures, timelines or sanctions for social media companies who do not follow the code (beyond the ultimate sanction of being suspended from their voluntary membership).

“It looks to me like a ‘tick box’ code rather than one with real potential to bring about the change needed to create an internet where everyone feels safe and welcomed,” Tohatoha chief executive Mandy Henk told the Herald.

Tohatoha advocates for a more equitable internet, and works on initiatives to curb hate speech and misinformation online.

InternetNZ public policy manager Andrew Cushen said while the draft had gone to public consultation,submitters could only tweak a code that the industry had had a strong hand in creating. Instead, affected community groups should have been involved from the ground-up, Cushen said.

His sentiments were echoed by Tohatoha’s Henk, who said, “I’m concerned about the content and structure of the code, as well as the process that led to its creation.

“As it is, NetSafe has created this with the industry – and not with the input of targeted communities and individuals.”

Henk also saw a number of conflict-of-interest issues.

“I’m also concerned that, as written, the code creates a financial conflict of interest. It’s hard to see how the code could be fairly administered for internet users if the administrator is dependent on funding from the industry,” she said.

“I also have concerns that if NetSafe were to be the administrator of the code, it could create a conflict with their role as the official conflict and resolution body for the Harmful Digital Communications Act.”

The Herald put Henk and Cushen’s concerns to Netsafe’s Cocker.

The chief executive responded: “The code’s purpose remains the same as it was when announced in July, and that is to create a safer online experience for the people of New Zealand. It will become a useful addition to New Zealand’s online safety measures – although it is clearly only part of the solution.

“Groups of stakeholders received briefings about the draft code as a lead into the submission and consultation processes. Their initial feedback on the process was taken into account.”

Henk countered: “The proposed consultation period is both too short, falling as it does over the summer holidays and without, as far as I understand, any plan to resource those they are consulting with. It is also too late, given that the code has already been written.”

The Tohatoha head added: “The timing also seems intended to pre-empt the currently under way review of content regulation. That democratic process is absolutely crucial to ensuring that we get a regulatory framework that centres on those who have been targeted by online hate, disinformation and the range of digital harms that the code seeks to remedy.”

Cocker said the submission period had been extended to February 2 and that “a more significant set of consultation workshops are being arranged for February 2022”.

Cushen said there were positives in the process, even if the code – as it stood – had flaws.

“Credit where credit’s due. We want to acknowledge the fact that at least these conversations are happening, and that the social media companies have been prepared to engage. Their intent is genuine. But do it properly. Engage from the ground up with the affected communities. Work with them not for them, to understand what the challenges are, and how they can best be addressed.”

Earlier, on an online call to discuss the code, Meta Australia-New Zealand policy director Mia Garlick said Facebook encouraged governments and government agencies like Netsafe to set online safety policy. The social network welcomed clarification of the ground rules in each jurisdiction in operated.

Cocker exits stage left

Today is Cocker’s last as Netsafe chief executive after 16 years in the role.

Netsafe general manager Andrea Leask will be acting CEO until a new chief executive is found.

Cocker told the Herald he had plans for his own project in the internet safety space.

He later posted to LinkedIn: “It wasn’t an easy decision to leave, but now feels like the right time to explore some opportunities that have been presenting themselves for a while.

“The online safety community is full of many talented and passionate individuals dedicated to making a positive difference.

“And so it is with mixed feelings that I sign off as Netsafe CEO. I’m proud of what we achieved at Netsafe New Zealand, and I’ll definitely miss many aspects of the job – but I’m also excited about what lays ahead for me. I’ll be remaining a member of the online safety community and will share more in the new year.”

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