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Brent Carey at Netsafe in Auckland. (Photo: Toby Manhire; Image: Tina Tiller)
Brent Carey at Netsafe in Auckland. (Photo: Toby Manhire; Image: Tina Tiller)

MediaJuly 12, 2022

Meet the man tasked with making the internet safe

Brent Carey at Netsafe in Auckland. (Photo: Toby Manhire; Image: Tina Tiller)
Brent Carey at Netsafe in Auckland. (Photo: Toby Manhire; Image: Tina Tiller)

Brent Carey arrives at Netsafe as the organisation grapples with an explosion of digital hazards and a string of internal controversies. He sits down with Toby Manhire to lay out his plan.

When the New Zealand Internet Safety Group was set up in 1998, the internet was an infant and its safety issues, though serious, were fewer and more straightforward. Google was about to launch; Facebook was five years away. Mobile phones were still rare – about one in every five households – and users were just beginning to try out a new function: texting. As for the internet, we knew where that lived: over there, in the computer.

An Internet Safety Guide published in 2000 at talked, in the vernacular of the day, about surfing the net. Today, most of us swim in it. Which means that Netsafe (the Internet Safety Group as a whole adopted the name of its website in 2008) confronts hazards dramatically larger in scale and more diffuse in form. While one or two digital challenges may have faded away – an early focus on cybercafes, for example – the online terrain and Netsafe’s scope have sprawled. 

As well as long-standing functions of research, training and education to protect people, young people especially, against online threats ranging from online harassment and financial scams to revenge porn, the organisation undertakes a range of research and advocacy work. Independent but almost entirely state-funded, Netsafe’s remit and size grew substantially in 2015, when it was appointed the single “approved agency” for taking on complaints of online bullying and harassment under the new Harmful Digital Communications Act (HDCA). That status was renewed for a second term of five years in June 2021.

All of that is top of mind for Brent Carey, who joined Netsafe as CEO at the start of May. He leads a staff of 21. The organisation’s HQ on Auckland’s High Street is a typical office space, notable only for a couple of “privacy booths”, which look like they might have fallen from a nearby gondola but are in fact soundproofed spaces where case workers can hold sensitive conversations. Those case workers make up two-thirds of the staff. “Fourteen people, keeping the internet safe for us,” says Carey, pointing around the room in half-exaggeration. He draws a contrast with another, larger force, saying simply: “11,000 cops.”

Carey, who arrives at Netsafe after four years as Domain Name Commissioner, the watchdog for all things ending in .nz, inherits the helm of an organisation faced not just by a daunting, danger-ridden digital terrain, but a string of controversies within its own walls – many of its own making. As documented most assiduously by Newsroom’s Jonathan Milne, these include claims of internal bullying and at least three separate employment disputes. The previous CEO, Martin Cocker, who departed after 15 years with just three weeks’ notice, was the subject of one of those, though he has stressed “I didn’t leave Netsafe for any untoward reason.”

One former staffer has taken a case against Netsafe to the Employment Relations Authority. And in March the Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Netsafe had breached the privacy of three women by divulging confidential information about them to the man they accused of cyberstalking. The man, a convicted stalker, had exploited the organisation’s own processes under the HDCA. It cost Netsafe in monetary terms, with the tribunal ordering $100,000 in compensation plus legal bills, but even costlier was the damage to reputation.

Netsafe in strife

Sitting in a cafe across the road from the office, I run through the catalogue of headlines. Carey, not yet two months into the role, stares back, blinking, studiously expressionless. 

“I’m definitely aware of the past issues, and where we want to get to,” Carey says. He’s studied the case involving the three women whose rights were breached, and sent a written apology. “On behalf of Netsafe, I am sincerely sorry for the impact our actions have had on you,” he wrote. “I accept Netsafe needs to do better when it comes to respect for an individual’s privacy. Please know that we continue to take steps to make improvements to how we handle privacy.”

He makes that point again today. “We’re looking at all our processes and our systems that we run now and making sure that they are up to scratch,” he says. “Certainly, could we have done better? Yes, absolutely. Now my goal is to make sure that we’ve got continuous improvement and that we’re reviewing everything.”

On the various claims of internal bullying, again which relate to events before his time, he won’t be drawn on specifics. But what of the general point: how can we be confident that an organisation responsible for resolving complaints of bullying in the digital world is not plagued with its own bullying culture? “I care deeply about wellbeing,” he says. “I care deeply that we’ve got systems and processes in place. I want people to raise their concerns with us. I want to continuously improve. Bullying and anti-bullying – no one is immune from any concern; it’s an issue across New Zealand. The main thing is tackling it and putting in place systems and processes to deal with it. I’m confident that’s what we’ve got.”

If there’s an upside in the upheaval, it’s the soul-searching it has prompted, says Carey – a period of reflection on Netsafe’s raison d’etre. “I was really lucky when I came in that the board and staff had been having a conversation about our purpose,” he says. “What we’ve been trying to look at is what does online look like now? We need to be safe non-stop, regardless of the physical and virtual world.” That meant casting forward, too, to the sometimes brain-melting ideas about the digital environments of tomorrow. “What do we do about the metaverse and realities? These are really existential questions about what safe online spaces and places look like in New Zealand.”

Brent Carey and a privacy pod at Netsafe. (Photo: Toby Manhire)

A new broom?

Carey is promising not a revolution nor an overhaul, but – a word he deploys a number of times across the interview – a refresh. “I think it’s always important to have a refresh,” says the amiable, quietly intense, determinedly optimistic Carey, half-answering a question about whether he represents a new broom for an organisation that has had a bumpy few years. With Cocker having been in the role for 15 years, “I bring a different perspective,” he says, “an opportunity to refresh stuff. A new broom? It’s not about throwing out everything but looking at how we could be doing things better … The next 24 months is going to be exciting.”

When he started the job, Carey didn’t seek to deliver a speech from on high setting out a grand vision. Instead, he bullet-points, the priorities were these: “Start conversations. Form new relationships. I didn’t want to come in with a big plan, I wanted to start with what matters to the people of Aotearoa.” 

As far as concerns around the culture are concerned, “my main thing was, are they issues that are current?” says Carey. He caught up one on one with every staff member, and came away feeling positive. “It was pretty much a ‘staying’ interview; why are you staying? People are passionate about Netsafe’s purpose. They can see themselves in that vision. So the culture, as far as I’m aware, is that they’re really passionate about being at Netsafe.”

It’s no ordinary workplace, either, he points out, with employees exposed to some of the most noxious exchanges online, and tasked with supporting vulnerable, victimised people. “People need to be working on their wellbeing and their resilience, because obviously they’re seeing the worst of the internet,” says Carey. “How do we make sure people are resilient on the other end of the phone when you’re ringing up?”. He’s exploring, as part of that, the potential to introduce a four-day week. 

He wants to look, too, at the possibility of introducing chatbots. “We’re going to lean in to what a chatbot looks like. Some people feel shame around this – talking about your intimate images being shared with another human being, you might want to talk to a digital employee before you talk to a real person, to get some things off your chest.”

But the “biggest pitch”, he says, “was probably about a diversity lens. As a gay male learning about their whakapapa, what does diversity look like for our culturally and linguistically and religiously diverse communities? And what’s going on for our marginalised groups online? That’s probably a point of difference in what you get with me. A kid from Ōpunake.” More on that later. “Grew up, went to the city.” That’s Wellington, where he studied law, English and geography at Victoria, before working for the Privacy Commissioner. “Lived abroad.” Melbourne, mostly, where he worked in privacy and at the state’s telecoms regulator. “Came out. Came back to New Zealand. A whole lot of Māori relationships have moved way on” – Carey is Te Āti Awa – “and I’m playing catchup, getting comfortable.” 

The pressure on funds 

That focus feeds into Netsafety Week, which runs at the end of July with a theme of “diversity matters”. In a release last week, Netsafe noted an increase of harmful content reports by 25% across the last two years, “with Māori, children, and women targeted the most”. 

The most recent annual report records 4,207 harmful digital communication reports over the course of 12 months. Just over 200 of those were deemed to qualify under the HDCA, with 68 resolved and four referred on to the courts. Netsafe is not an enforcement agency – the process, as required by statute, involves seeking a negotiated resolution where appropriate, and if necessary helping the complainant prepare a file to take to police or to court for a civil action, in the unlikely event that is a path they have the capacity and energy to pursue. 

Given that growing demand, does he have enough people? Carey again alights on the police contrast. “It takes one police officer for every 486 of us to feel safe in the physical world. Is 14 staff policing the internet enough resourcing for Netsafe, especially with what’s going on for people? I don’t know if that’s enough. I know we’re up in the volume of reports. So that would suggest we need to think about how we resource Netsafe.”

As it stands, the predominant funders for Netsafe, which brings in just over $4m a year, are the education and justice ministries. Carey is content with those arrangements, and says that despite a difficult year and a loss the previous year, Netsafe is budgeting for a $10,000 surplus. But, he says, “what we would like to talk about is where our funding is not coming from, and whether it should be a whole of government approach. We don’t get funded for our scams work – certainly MBIE and DIA and others don’t fund us. Where should that funding come from?” And he’d like to see Netsafe covering more of the country with its safety presentations – “from Cape Reinga to Gore, New Plymouth to Napier, we’ve got to get around with our safety messages as best we can” – but a strain on resources means they have to turn down many invitations to visit. “We just don’t have the resources to deliver all of those.”

But back to the police. He’s made that point twice. Is he concerned they’re not doing their bit, that they’re failing to meet the challenge of online safety from the criminal side of the equation? “No, not at all,” he says. “I think police are getting to grips with what digital looks like. [They’ve been] very cooperative, a very close working relationship, as I found in my previous role with high-tech crime at the Domain Name Commission. I’m keen to develop a closer working relationships with police. Given that we’re the civil side, what does our working relationship look like on the criminal side? I’m very keen to talk to high-tech crime [officers] and also family violence, because there’s a form of digital family domestic violence going on – what are we going to do to tackle that? That involves closer working relationships with police.” As to whether police are enforcing existing legislation, he poses simply this: “Which districts haven’t brought criminal prosecutions yet?”

As for that civil side, and Netsafe’s own role, is there a risk – as the Human Rights Tribunal outcome hints – that the negotiation-heavy approach creates a false balance between a perpetrator and a victim? Carey acknowledges the tension, but points to the similarities in the privacy area, where he’s previously worked. “It is a balancing act,” he says. “We are balancing a lot of rights, and balancing information. So how do we remain neutral and impartial, and we’re also not an enforcement agency. So we have to discharge those duties really carefully around where’s the balance. That’s something we also need to think about in terms of our victim-centred approach.”

A contested code 

Another major focus for Netsafe since early last year has been a document called the Code of Practice for Online Safety and Harms. The idea was this: encourage the big players in the internet to opt in to a self-regulatory scaffold for what is and isn’t acceptable online – a code, in the words of the draft, that “brings industry together under a set of principles and commitments, as well as provides a best practice self-regulatory framework aimed at enhancing people’s safety and reducing harmful content online”.

However noble the purpose, the publication of that draft was met by three important groups with a barely suppressed fury. Tohatoha NZ and the Inclusive Aotearoa Collective Tāhono said they were appalled by an upside-down process that saw consultation with the big commercial beasts come before engagement with the groups at the sharp end of online harms. InternetNZ echoed those views. “We think this process needed to begin by working with local people and communities,” it said in its submission. “Instead, the process so far has put digital services ahead of local communities, in terms of the order of consultation, the ways people are able to participate, and the amount of time offered for input … We think that process leaves a legitimacy gap at the foundation of the code.” 

Ever the diplomat, Carey says he hears what they’re saying, and agrees there is need to “involve more civil society voices”, but insists that the code can help make the internet safer in New Zealand. “When it was first developed we should have involved more multi-stakeholder voices, and that’s what I’ve been looking at already in the role – how to get a broader perspective.” 

Any voluntary code is by definition only as useful as those who volunteer. So far Meta, Microsoft, Google and TikTok are on board, but Carey would like to see more, including “some local signatories like Trade Me and Mega”. He says: “This is not an offshore-platforms issue, this is about online harm for the people of Aotearoa – where are they and what platforms are they engaging with?”

A code needn’t cut across the government’s push for a statutory response to the poisons online, Carey says. Internal Affairs is currently undertaking a content regulatory reform, but the two could run in tandem, he reckons. “This is a principles based code; we’re confident that whatever happens in that space there is still a place for this,” he says. “Codes are a great way of having some rules based approach to some thorny issues.” 

Meta, Microsoft, Google and TikTok have signed up to the code. (Photo: Getty Images)

The misinformation contagion

There is one group of internet operators who are near certain to be missing from the signatory list: the likes of Telegram or Gab, the redoubts for conspiracy theorists, the digital sprinklers of disinformation. Carey is less sceptical. “I’m not going to rule out a Gab or a Telegram. Let’s see who signs up,” he says, but his pursed expression suggests he knows the odds of that happening.

It points to a broader reality – getting a grip on the internet can be a lot like carrying water in a sieve. It’s made harder when you survey the kaleidoscope of digital bad actors, whether they’re distressed individuals, avaricious scammers or even nation-state incubators of disinformation. 

Netsafe – which one expert suggested to me recently takes the form of a “dinghy in a storm” – is just one of the New Zealand organisations tasked with confronting this onslaught, together with the Police, the Classification Office, the Domain Name Commission, DIA and others.  

As he ended his term as chief censor in May, David Shanks told The Spinoff this: “Our regulatory framework is outdated. And in practical terms, I think I’d struggle to say it is fit for purpose in the current environment.” 

Does Carey agree? “No, I don’t,” he says, after a beat. “It’s an ecosystem. You wouldn’t want to centralise some of these issues into one agency.” He pauses again and sips his coffee. “I think the internet is complex. I think it’s more about getting the moving parts working better together. Each on their own are good subject matter experts. It’s more about how we information-share, how we share intel. I think improvements around that would be really good to look at – coordination of the different agencies.”

The kid from Ōpunake

Over his years working in public organisations patrolling privacy, online disputes, domain names and now online safety, Carey has maintained an unlikely side-hustle: Green Meadows Beef – a digital age business born out of the family farm in Taranaki.

He tells the origin story. “I think for every farming family, succession planning is always interesting,” he says. “So Dad raised three boys, none of them farmers. But of course we connected to the land. So the three boys and Mum and Dad went: How do we keep the family farm, which is intergenerational, together? Around the kitchen table we came up with Green Meadows Beef. I was in Melbourne at the time – one of my brothers quit his job at law firm to run it, to sell beef direct from the farm to the consumer.”

They began a decade ago by selling three-quarter beasts direct to consumers, before quickly realising that not everyone owned a chest freezer. Today the company employs about 20 people in New Plymouth, runs a butcher, supplies supermarkets and exports.

Does all that offer anything useful when running Netsafe? “Starting a company that is pretty much about export and retail, I’m definitely going to bring some of that to online safety.” Carey clocks my perplexed face. “It’s definitely going to be about looking at our products, at our offering, at our services. It’s definitely going to bring a customer lens. It’ll be looking at where our funding sources are coming from. And that commercial lens.”

What about brand? Does Netsafe have a brand to rescue? The surveys, Carey insists, show that Netsafe is known and trusted. “It’s a brand that is about to turn 25 next year,” he says. “It’s a brand that has been around for a long time and is well recognised by people, but there’s always an opportunity to” – that word again – “refresh. To make sure it’s relevant.”

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