A Bill to curb the growing incidence of cyber-bullying and its devastating effects passed its second reading in Parliament Tuesday night.
The Harmful Digital Communications Bill introduces a range of measures to address damaging online communications and ensure perpetrators are held to account for their actions.
It will create a new offense of sending messages or posting material to case harm which will be punishable by up to two years in jail or a $2000 fine.
Those who are found guilty of inciting someone to commit suicide face up to three years in prison.
While the bill is supported by a number of community groups and political parties, it also has critics.
There are concerns that the new law goes too far and will limit free speech and may criminalise teenagers with harsh penalties.
In the Commission’s submission to the Justice and Electoral Committee, Chief Commissioner David Rutherford said that the right to be free from bullying is fundamental to the realisation of basic human rights.
“Everyone, particularly children, have a right to personal security, there is no difference between the harm caused by bullying in the real or digital worlds," "
Bullying – including cyberbullying – is a major human rights issue in New Zealand because it threatens the very right to life.”
He also recognised that although some opponents of the Bill may argue it infringes the right to freedom of expression the Commission considers that restriction justified in order to protect vulnerable people and children in particular.
“The Bill strikes the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to prevent or reduce harm to others,” said Mr Rutherford.
As it stands, measures in the bill will:
- Establish a complaint handling agency to resolve the vast bulk of complaints about harmful digital communications
- Allow people to take serious complaints to the District Court, which could issue remedies, such as take-down orders and cease-and-desist notices
- Allow people to easily and quickly request the removal of harmful content, while also clarifying the liability of online content hosts (called a ‘safe harbour’ provision)
- Make it an offence to send messages and post material online that are intended to cause harm
- Create a new offence of incitement to commit suicide, in situations where the person does not attempt to take their own life.
The bill includes a number of amendments recommended by the Justice and Electoral Select Committee.
- A modified safe harbour provision, to better balance removal requests with freedom of expression rights
- Increased maximum penalties for two offences
- A new provision allowing the District Court to order an Internet Protocol Address Provider (IPAP) to release the identity of an anonymous communicator to the court.