New Zealand poised to censor 'harmful' online communications

Only one small party is likely to vote against a law that can require the removal of online content intended to cause harm.
Written by Rob O'Neill, Contributor

A Bill that could require blogs, social and mainstream media to remove communications deemed severely emotionally distressing is likely to pass in New Zealand by a large majority today.

Just one party is actively opposing the law, the right-of-centre Act Party, which says it fears the Harmful Digital Communications Bill will be "another case study in bad law-making".

Party leader and MP David Seymour said the Bill creates a strange asymmetry between the virtual world and the real world where different standards apply to online and offline speech.

The ten communications principles written into the Bill, he said, "would be a good guide to desirable behaviour on a school camp."

Media organisations are also concerned the law could be used to bully people into taking down legitimate material.

In an editorial written this week, one wrote some of the ten principles were "ludicrously wide".

"One, for example, prohibits digital communications that make a false allegation. As those with experience of defamation law know, that can be an area of endless argument, and the new statute has none of the safeguards provided by two centuries of development of defamation law."

Other issues addressed by the law, such as the posting of revenge porn and sensitive personal facts, could have been dealt with through amendments to existing laws, Seymour said.

The Bill was proposed after the two young women subject to digital bullying committed suicide and in the wake of the "Roastbusters" scandal, where the police were criticised for their response to online abuse,

"This Bill will be ineffective in protecting vulnerable kids and will very likely be used as a weapon to curtail free speech," Seymour said.

Amy Adams, the Minister of Justice, said government had to act to stem "new and insidious threats". There was a dark side to the internet that required a targeted response.

"Whether it's in the schoolyard, the workplace or at home, bullying anywhere is intolerable, she said.

"But the reality is that the digital age has allowed the reach and impact of bullying to increase dramatically."

"This Bill will help stop cyberbullies and reduce the devastating impact their actions can have by simplifying the process for getting abusive material off the internet in a quick and proportionate way."

The Bill creates a new criminal offence for sending messages and posting material online that deliberately causes serious emotional distress. That is punishable by up to two years imprisonment or a maximum fine of NZ$50,000 for individuals, and a fine of up to NZ$200,000 for companies.

It also criminalises incitement to commit suicide, even in situations where the person does not attempt to take their own life. An offender faces up to three years in prison.

A "safe harbour" provision allows online content hosts to avoid liability when they follow a process for handling complaints, Adams said.

"The safe harbour is based on personal responsibility and fairness - the author or creator of allegedly harmful or unlawful content should be responsible for that content and be given an opportunity to respond to allegations.

"For example, before a court can make a take-down order, it must take into account factors such as the public interest and the truth of the statement. The court must also act consistently with the rights and freedoms contained in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act."

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