The government is the real cyberbully

In forcing its regulations on New Zealand citizens, the government has become a cyberbully; the very thing it is seeking to prevent.
Written by Darren Greenwood, Contributor

What delicate little flowers we have become. Just because some people say nasty things online, our nanny state is considering a fresh crackdown on freedom of speech in New Zealand.

A Law Commission report on cyberbullying has recommended that a Communications Tribunal be created. The tribunal would have the power to name and shame online offenders, and force ISPs or websites to take down content.

The Law Commission also proposed the creation of a new electronic communications offence for those aged 14 and over, with fines of up to NZ$2000 or three months in jail.

And all for sending a hurtful text message!

Justice Minister Judith Collins has welcomed the Law Commission's report, saying that it gives cyberbullies a message that their behaviour must stop.

However, the minister must pause for thought before pushing for any changes to the law.

I am sure that cyberbullying can be distressing, but it is just the online version of what school kids have always faced. Have people forgotten the old slogan "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me"?

We also have sufficient laws to deal with some harassment, like defamation.

The opposition Labour Party's ICT spokesperson Clare Curran has warned against "heavy-handed" regulations, saying that the internet is hard to regulate.

The Tech Liberty lobby group also warned of dangers to freedom of speech. It pointed out that "significant emotional distress" is a very low threshold, especially as excitable teenagers are the focus of the proposed law changes.

Such critics are absolutely right.

The Law Commission also proposes a new offence of inciting people to commit suicide.

But what kid hasn't said "drop dead" to someone in a fit of anger? And I can't count the number of times my brother used to tell me to go and "play with the cars" on the nearby motorway. If the commission recommendations become law, police will face a nightmare implementing them. Lawyers will also have a field day arguing over the extent of the alleged "hurt" or "harm".

I would argue that the government has become a cyberbully itself.

We see this in New Zealand, where our government is working with the US government to bully Kim Dotcom, who now faces a NZ$2.5 million legal bill, because he threatens the Hollywood interests of those who fund their president.

We also see it in Australia, where the government bullies the media that it dislikes, and also plans to regulate newspapers and online content, even including blogs that have few readers.

Indeed, it is time we all spoke out against such government nannying and realised that with their proposed measures adding to their existing overbearing activities, the government is the real cyberbully.

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