Cyber bullies could be jailed for up to two years for sending messages or posting material that causes harm, following recommendations from a parliamentary committee.
Internet providers will also be forced to reveal the identity of an offending anonymous poster, under order from the District Court.
School principals will also be permitted to ask a court to take down malicious or nasty content on behalf of a student.
The Government introduced a bill last year to tackle online abuse. Parliament’s justice and electoral select committee has now reported back with a raft of amendments to toughen up the legislation – which Justice Minister Judith Collins has accepted.
The committee wants the higher maximum penalty for the new offence of “causing harm by posting a digital communication” to be raised from three months in jail, or a $2000 fine, to two years in jail. This would bring the sentence in line with other harassment offences.
I have mixed feelings on the law. It will provide relief to some victims of cyber bullying, and that is a good thing. There is some nasty stuff happening on line.
But I am concerned that the definition of harm, based on 10 principles, is too wide and it may be used to try and stifle free speech and merely robust opinion. Already one NZ First MP on Twitter has been threatening journalists with complaints under the new law.
MPs also believe the author of material subject to a complaint be given 48 hours to respond.
There is one good aspect to the new law, and it is giving a fair degree of protection to content hosts like Kiwiblog. I’ll explain how it will work.
If someone complains that something I have personally written is causing an individual harm, then I’ll consider the complaint and either delete or amend what I have said – or reject the complaint and it may go through to the Approved Agency and then District Court for a decision.
But what if there is a complaint about what a commenter has written? I don’t want to be liable for that. The law as drafted proposed that hosts like myself be immune from liability so long as we remove the comment written by someone else upon receiving a complaint. The trouble with that is it means that I have to make a decision on what might not be a clear cut case, and that I’ll be incentivised to remove comments upon receiving complaints just to be safe.
The revised law allows me to avoid getting dragged in. If a complaint is received, then I need to pass it onto the author (commenter) within 48 hours and they have a further 48 hours to respond. If they wish their comments to remain, and are happy to accept liability for them – then the case will become a dispute between the complainant and the author/commenter – and generally leave me out of it. That is a very good thing – and may also apply to other areas such as defamation.
The 48 hours timeframe is too tight though, and I think it should be say three working days. I’m often out of touch for 48 hours or more.
So some good and some not so good in the bill.