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National's gang-busting social media policy nearly impossible to police - expert

Gang tensions and drive-by shootings: How did it all begin and where to from here? Video / NZ Herald / Brett Phibbs / Hayden Woodward

Gang tensions and drive-by shootings: How did it all begin and where to from here? Video / NZ Herald / Brett Phibbs / Hayden Woodward

The National Party's proposed policy to ban gangs from posting gang insignia on social media will be difficult to enforce, says a New Zealand internet expert.

The law-and-order policy was proposed yesterday during National's Northern Regional Conference held in Auckland. This comes at a time when gang violence has dominated the headlines after a series of drive-by shootings over the last three weeks.

"New Zealanders are waking up daily to news of gang shootings and the only question is not if or when there'll be another, but whose street it will be in next time," National leader Christopher Luxon said.

The party's ideas to tackle gangs are also yet to have a legal assessment alongside the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (BORA) and may be a contradiction to the legislation, National's police spokesman has admitted.

It is already unlawful to display gang insignia on premises owned by government or local authorities, including schools and hospitals.

National's policy would extend that ban to all public places including any location visible from a public place - such as the exterior of a gang clubhouse.

This includes posts to social media, which gangs are continuously using to market themselves and target younger members.

Luxon said he planned to target gangs online the same way violent extremists have been.

"We believe we can crack down on that," he said. "The same principles apply in being able to isolate these websites and social media accounts. That is a conversation police would need to have with social media platforms."

Interim chief executive of Internet NZ Andrew Cushen said that gang posts on social media and extremist material are very different and can't be policed in the same way.

He says that National's proposed policy has a content-based approach, meaning it looks to control the images that are posted to social media and not the people who post, which is nearly impossible to police.

"Gang patches and other imagery come in many forms; how long will the list have to be for this to actually be effective?" Cushen said.

National has said that tattoos will not be included in the policy.

The Government's current approach to blocking extremist material is an algorithmic process that focuses on keeping people from being driven to extreme sites on the internet. That is much easier to control and manage than content-based blocking, Cushen said.

"The internet isn't designed to do content blocking. We have seen in the past that content-based blocking is often difficult to implement, ineffective in operation, and error-prone.

"This means that either the wrong people are getting caught out and the wrong limitations are in place, or the content is getting driven further into darker corners of the internet where it's harder to police."

If National were to take an individual-based approach, however, that would come with an equal number of challenges.

Cushen said that it would be difficult to decide who wouldn't be able to post on social media. Additionally, it may be a case of missing civil liberties if their entire social media access is revoked.

In Luxon's speech at the conference, he also revealed he would aim to mimic Australia's non-consorting orders, which prevent gang-related offenders from associating with others. He also said he would give police powers to issue firearms protection orders.

Mongrel Mob life member Harry Tam has condemned National's proposals to stop gang violence, saying that National cannot "legislate its way out of a socio-economic problem".

Tam described Luxon's speech yesterday as "Groundhog Day" in a comment posted to Facebook last night.

"Consecutive governments have been doing this since the Norman Kirk government when it introduced the Unlawful Assembly Charge, and since then we have had the disorderly assemblies charge, banning gang patches in certain places... being a member of organised crime etc., and now there are more gang members than ever," Tam wrote.

Tam, who did not wish to comment further when contacted by the Herald, also said in the post that the only time we have seen a decline in gang violence is when the policies were made after the government sought input from the gangs themselves.

He referred to former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon's "stick and carrot" approach between 1981-1987, which Tam claimed is the only time gang membership rates ever dropped in New Zealand. He said this was due to the introduction of employment, education and training schemes that "fit into the gang members' lifestyle".

However, since then, Tam said there has been nothing similar.

"So far for three decades, there has been no pro-social initiatives directed to hard-to-reach communities. Over that time, we have seen three generations of disaffected youth growing up in an almost total void of pro-social input. So why are we surprised to see unprecedented growth in gang membership."

Tam went on further to say we need to stop mimicking the laws of countries with "worse gang problems" such as the US and Australia.

Fellow mob member, Mongrel Mob Kingdom ariki Sonny Fatupaito, told RNZ today that National's plan would be a breach of human rights and would further discriminate against members' families.

Militarising police forces against gangs was proven not to work, Fatupaito told RNZ, and added systemic racism and racial profiling by police was an ongoing issue for Māori and Pasifika.

Fatupaito also said he believed Nation's policy would be in direct conflict with the Bill or Rights Act, and a breach under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Mitchell admitted on TV1's Q&A programme this morning that the party's policy may be a contradiction to the BORA and that an assessment was yet to take place.

Section 17 of the BORA grants New Zealanders the right to freedom of association, while section 18 refers to the right to freedom of movement, and section 14 of the legislation is the right to freedom of expression.

"On the Bill of Rights it's as simple as this ... gang members steamroll and trample over the rights of everyday Kiwis on a daily basis," Mitchell said when asked by Q&A host Jack Tame about the potential infringement.

"They put them at enormous harm, they're discharging high-powered military rifles through people's homes, and actually if they continue to act like that then they're going to have to understand that there's going be some tough legislation that may impinge on some of their rights."

Luxon said that the proposed legislation promised to "make life harder for criminal gangs" and give new more power back to the police.

"These are practical tools that would help police who are facing a growing challenge on New Zealand's streets," Luxon said.

"The scenes we've witnessed recently in Auckland and other places are alarming law-abiding New Zealanders.

"We don't have to put up with it, and we shouldn't."

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