Technology and Crimes Reform Bill 1995
The first attempt to legislate for internet content in New Zealand was the Technology and Crimes Reform Bill 1995, introduced by National MP Trevor Rogers. The bill created new offences for misuse of telephone lines to transmit objectionable material and prohibited communication with foreign telecommunication services hosting ‘objectionable’ images. The bill required internet service providers (ISPs) to cut off links to foreign websites on the order of the Office of Film and Literature Classification. The bill was defeated in Parliament.
The reaction of the nascent internet sector to the proposed 1995 bill was swift and hostile. John Houlker, manager of what was then New Zealand's sole internet gateway at the University of Waikato, threatened to sever the country's link to the global internet if the bill was passed on the basis that it would be legally untenable for the university to continue to operate its network.
Internet content has largely been addressed by laws passed in the early 1990s, before the internet was in popular use – most notably, the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 and the Copyright Act 1994. Where necessary, laws were amended to take account of the internet. For example, the Customs and Excise Act 1996 was amended to include the downloading of objectionable material from an overseas website in the definition of ‘importing’ such material.
Copyright (New Technologies) Amendment Act 2008
The most controversial measure was the Copyright (New Technologies) Amendment Act 2008, which sparked a battle between rights owners, including music and media companies, and a more diffuse group informally led by the internet governance body InternetNZ. Opposition focused on Section 92A, which opponents said could disconnect internet users on the mere allegation of downloading copyrighted material without permission.
The response to the proposed 2008 act was a so-called ‘blackout’ protest, which saw thousands of individuals replace their websites and social media avatars with black panels to symbolise what they viewed as the implications of the law.
The government withdrew Section 92A. It was eventually replaced with the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act 2011, which allowed copyright owners to notify ISPs, which in turn warn the users. After three such warnings the copyright owner could take a case to the Copyright Tribunal, which could impose fines of up to $15,000. A provision for disconnection as a penalty was dormant until an order in council was made by the governor-general on the recommendation of the minister of justice.
The issue of copyright infringement on a massive scale was brought home to New Zealand when the German digital entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, who had been granted residence in New Zealand, was arrested on the basis of US charges that his company had cost the entertainment industry US$500 million by having pirated files on the Megaupload site. He was freed on bail and subsequently New Zealand’s High Court decided that the warrant used to arrest him was invalid.
Media regulation and standards have struggled to keep up with change. New Zealand's only statutory regulator, the Broadcasting Standards Authority, has jurisdiction over content broadcast on television and radio, but not over the same content transmitted via the internet. The New Zealand Press Council has jurisdiction over material published by its members in any medium other than broadcast, but not material – most notably, the work of bloggers – published outside the established news media.
In a 2013 report the New Zealand Law Commission called for an independent news regulator, subsuming both the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Press Council, and with a ‘consistent set of news media standards’ to adjudicate complaints. Media organisations who made themselves subject to the regulator – including independent publishers and bloggers – would enjoy various legal exemptions and privileges. Membership would also be a condition of receiving funding for factual programming from NZ On Air, the government agency responsible for funding broadcasting.
Shortly before the report’s release, the country's major television and radio broadcasters announced the formation of the Online Media Standards Authority (OMSA), which would handle standards complaints about their online content. The Law Commission proposed that OMSA be replaced by its merged regulator. In 2014 the minister of justice was considering these recommendations.
As in other countries, New Zealand courts have found no protection for defamatory statements simply because they are made on the internet rather than in mainstream media. The most-frequently cited case was O'Brien v Brown (2001), in which Patrick O’Brien, the chief executive of the national domain name registrar Domainz, successfully sued Alan Brown, owner of an internet service provider (ISP) for defamatory statements he made on internet forums operated by Domainz's owner, the Internet Society of New Zealand.