New online safety code blasted as tech giants' attempt to claim legitimacy in New Zealand

Online safety
It's a "weak attempt to preempt regulation", according to some in the tech industry. Photo credit: Getty Images

Just hours after some of the world's biggest technology companies signed a joint agreement to improve online safety in Aotearoa, the deal has been criticised.

Meta, Google, TikTok, Amazon and Twitter inked the Aotearoa New Zealand Code of Practice for Online Safety and Harms alongside Netsafe and NZ Tech, which obligates them to actively reduce harmful content on their platforms.

But a joint statement from Tohatoha NZ, InternetNZ and the Inclusive Aotearoa Collective Tāhono say the deal is nothing but a "weak attempt to preempt regulation".

"This Code looks to us like a Meta-led effort to subvert a New Zealand institution so that they can claim legitimacy without having done the work to earn it," Mandy Henk, CEO of Tohatoha NZ wrote.

The industry-led model avoids the real change and accountability needed to protect communities, individuals and democracy, "which is being subjected to enormous amounts of disinformation designed to increase hate and destroy social cohesion.

"Any Code of Practice should begin by acknowledging the extreme power imbalance between users and the platforms," the three organisations said.

"This Code and the process that led to it shows that those behind it have no awareness of this inequity and are not interested in rebalancing that power differential."

In a release announcing the Code, Netsafe CEO Brent Carey said it had been designed in conjunction with civil society groups and other interest groups.

"There are too many Kiwis being bullied, harassed, and abused online, which is why the industry has rallied together to protect users," Carey said.

The agreement sees NZ Tech taking over the establishment and administration of the Code, which the organisation says lacks legitimacy and community accountability.

"They have no human rights expertise or experience leading community engagements. 

"While we have no qualms with what they do, they are not impartial or focused on the needs of those who are harmed by these platforms.

"This Code talks a lot about transparency, but transparency without accountability is just window dressing. In our view, nothing in this Code enhances the accountability of the platforms or ensures that those who are harmed by their business models are made whole again or protected from future harms."

Criticism of Netsafe, which is the Approved Administrator for the Harmful Digital Communications Act (HDCA), was even more stinging with Henk writing that it should not be involved in creating industry codes of practice.

"This is a conflict of interest as it aligns them too closely with the companies impacted by the HDCA and increases the risk of regulatory capture," the statement continued.

"This Code is a distraction from their core work of administering the Act, which is crucially important. NetSafe’s focus should be on serving the New Zealand public and enhancing the safety of every New Zealander who uses the internet."

Tohatoha NZ, Internet NZ and the Inclusive Aotearoa Collective Tāhono then said a government-led process should lead to the regulation of online content.

"Only the government has the legitimacy and resourcing needed to bring together the diverse voices needed to develop a regulatory framework that protects the rights of internet users, including freedom of expression and freedom from hate and harassment," they concluded.