Proposed new laws to address online abuse

Employment

The Justice Minister Judith Collins says the Harmful Digital Communications Bill (the “Bill”) has been created to stop cyber bullies in their tracks. One in five New Zealand high school students have reported suffering cyber bullying or abuse, often to devastating effect, and so we think that this is an admirable aim.

The proposed legislation creates 10 communication principles which provide guidance on the types of communication that are acceptable in online/digital communication (which includes emails, text messages, and postings on blogs, forums and social media sites).

It makes several changes to both criminal and civil law including the creation of a new ‘approved’ agency to be the first port of call for complaints.

This approved agency will advise complainants, investigate complaints and attempt to negotiate settlements between parties. In more serious cases the approved agency will refer complaints to the District Court.

New criminal offenses will be created including:

  • “Posting harmful digital communication with the intent of causing harm”, which will carry a maximum penalty of up to 3 months imprisonment or a $2,000 fine.
  • “Inciting a person to commit suicide” (even in situations where that person does not attempt to take their own life), which will carry a maximum penalty of up to 3 years imprisonment.

If the legislation works as intended these changes should send a strong message that the damage caused by harmful digital communications will not be tolerated.

The new legislation is not without its criticisms however, including:

  • In addition to capturing online bullying and harassment, it also potentially restricts freedom of speech and sets a higher standard for online communication than for offline communication. For example - the law does not apply to hurtful letters posted to the recipient.
  • The proposed legislation focuses on the effect of the communication (the “harm”), rather than on the communication itself. This means that it might potentially capture some communications that are of value to society, for example exposing corruption or other wrong-doing – where the recipient then becomes upset.
  • The proposed legislation places an onerous obligation on online content hosts to remove content upon receiving a complaint or rick exposing itself to criminal and civil liability. This will lead to online content hosts removing legal but contentious content in response to complaints, whether the complainant is acting in good faith or not, further restricting freedom of speech.
  • Some commentators have suggested that given the sheer amount of digital content being created every day, the approved agency is likely to overwhelmed with complaints.

Conclusion

The proposed legislation is certainly well intended and designed to address a very important issue facing modern society and particularly our youngsters.

The Bill is now being considered by select committee and it is hoped that the legislators will take note of the criticisms that have been raised and amend its provisions to provide the best possible legislation before it is passed as a new Act.

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