Freedom of expression underpins NZ way of life

Freedom of expression underpins NZ way of life

May 21, 2015

Will our mountains "ever be" freedom of expression's ramparts on the sea?

Freedom of the press is only part of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression includes your and my freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.

Freedom of expression underpins our way of life in New Zealand, it enables liberal democracy, religious and non-religious observance, science and reason and innovation in all spheres of life.

All of us have the right to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is inextricably linked to other freedoms including freedoms of belief, of association and from arbitrary interference with our home, family, correspondence or reputation.

Today one of the biggest threats to freedom of expression is overreaching surveillance.

Every expression you make digitally today can be stored for later use by governments or businesses. Unless we take steps to ensure freedom of expression is not chilled by this our way of life is threatened.

A freedom always comes with risk and responsibility. Freedom of expression has and will always be subject to restrictions. There are responsibilities on those imparting and receiving expression.

There is a risk that expression will cause upset. There is a risk that limiting expression will harm our way of life.

Getting the balance right is critical.

New Zealand has a high level of realisation of freedom of expression. It also has a reputation for tolerance.

Governments and special interest groups will from time to time seek to restrict freedom of expression in the name of safety or special interest. Any restrictions must be narrow, specific, limited and authorised.

We must remember that none of these freedoms or rights came without a struggle. People died that we might have them.

A G Grayling describes the challenge we face today: "We should not wish future men and women who have to fight all over again for liberty to think we gave up on the courageous work of centuries without a struggle."

The fight for free speech began with the Reformation but the reformers soon became censors.

In 1553 Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake in Geneva for saying something that Calvin said was heresy. Servetus's burning body has been called "the first candle of the cause of liberty in the Reformation".

Many have died since since, including the New Zealanders who died fighting for free speech in World War II. There will be more sacrifice until the most intolerant are defeated by the most tolerant.

Today your and my freedom of expression is threatened by overreaching surveillance. The review of New Zealand's government security intelligence services starts soon.

However each of us is as much or more at risk of overreaching surveillance by businesses that operate surveillance based business models.

We happily "tick box" all our data over to these businesses in exchange for the use of an app, a website or a cloud. These businesses have plenty to lose if they lose our trust. Many are leading the fight to defend our freedom.

However if you are a digital citizen it is your responsibility to understand the bargain you are making when you tick the box.

Bruce Schneier has likened the current position of digital citizens to the serfs of feudal times. Tim Berners-Lee has called for new Magna Carta 800 years after the first.

There are many places where you can find information about the issues and possible solutions. Schneier's latest book Data and Goliath is one of the best places to look.

The Human Rights Commission will do everything it can to ensure New Zealanders know their human rights and responsibilities and to ensure that freedom of expression is protected.

We agree that targeted and authorised government surveillance is legitimate.

Schneier goes so far as saying that we need to work on finding better ways for police and intelligence services to conduct targeted surveillance in ways that do not  overreach and unreasonably curtail our freedoms. This would remove any possible justification for overreaching surveillance.

We must also find ways to better balance the power of the citizen in all aspects of our digital world.

If you want to honour the sacrifice of men and women who ensured we are free it is time for you to understand how the way you use your information technology affects your freedom.

It is time to make sure that our government surveillance programs and businesses operating surveillance based business models are fit for the purpose of protecting our freedom and not eroding it. Governments and businesses are not necessarily the enemy that much of the rhetoric suggests.

They can be a huge part of the solution.

This article first appeared as an op-ed in The Press in support of the Canon Media Awards held on May 22 to celebrate media freedom.

Chief Commissioner David Rutherford

David Rutherford was appointed Chief Human Rights Commissioner on September 2011. Prior to his appointment, he was the managing director of Special Olympics Asia Pacific and based in Singapore.

He has held senior executive roles in building materials and agribusiness businesses operating in New Zealand and Australia, has been chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union and has worked as a corporate, securities and commercial lawyer in New Zealand and Canada.

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