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Govt debates online bullying agency

28 Nov 12

The New Zealand government is considering changes to online bullying laws, as Justice Ministers Judith Collins urges the country to move with the tech times.

Speaking at NetSafe's conference in Wellington this week, the minister outlined the need for tighter security controls online but believed freedom of speech should not be comprised as a result.

"Our lives are increasingly intertwined with the digital world – and particularly so for young people," she said.

"Today we are confronted with new challenges – new crimes, new offences and unexpected harms that law makers and society could not ever have envisaged. There is no precedent.

"Cyber-bullying, for example, is one such issue. It’s an issue I take very seriously and it’s something that this Government has made a priority.

"Bullying has long been a problem, but its reach and impact has increased considerably in the digital age.

"Bullying is no longer confined to the classroom or playground – bullies are targeting their victims by cellphone, instant messaging devices and social networking websites.

"We must not underestimate the devastating impact this new form of bullying has, particularly on young people – it is contributing to increased truancy, failure at school and serious emotional problems such as depression, self-harm and even suicide.:

Law Commission:

Earlier in the year Collins asked the Law Commission to fast-track recommendations from its report into new media, looking specifically at harmful digital communications.

The Commission made recommendations across three key areas –

• Changes to legislation to ensure our laws are fit for the digital age and able to respond to harmful digital behaviour
• Creating a new civil enforcement regime to deal with harmful digital communications
• A toolbox of measures to help schools combat bullying in all forms, including cyber-bullying

"In response, the Government is considering changes to both civil and criminal law – including the creation of a new offence specifically tailored to combat harmful digital communications," she said.

"Naturally, the prospect of creating such an offence raises concerns in quarters about people’s right to free speech."

Freedom of speech:

"Freedom of speech is an issue that the Commission gave a significant amount of consideration to and it’s one that the Government takes very seriously," she said.

"Free speech is something the majority of internet users hold dearly.

"Recently there was a report in one of the newspapers about the hate-speech laws in the UK and somebody being able to be prosecuted for calling a New Zealander an Australian.

"That's not something we want to see in New Zealand. I do think it's important we retain the right for people to be idiots and make fools of themselves.

"The new offence should not be aimed at censorship, or speech which offends just because it is offensive.

"The proposed offence would only be for communications that are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or knowingly false as well as the most serious instances of intimate recordings taken with consent, but published without consent.

"And that sets a very high bar."

Law changes?

"Regarding updating existing laws, I believe the need for change is clear.

"Some of the laws that dictate offences and sanctions in the off-line world have not kept pace with technology – in some cases, the laws were written well before cellphones, instant messaging devices and social networking websites became common communication channels.

"And because bullying is no longer confined to the classroom or playground, bullies can harass their targets 24 hours a day, seven days a week, wherever they go, and the trail of abuse can live on in cyberspace, following victims for years.

"Once a comment is put into the cyber sphere, it is there forever.

"The potential enduring legacy of harmful digital communications shows the need for a new civil enforcement regime.

"So we are considering changes to the Harassment Act and the Human Rights Act to keep up with changes in technology.

"People need swift and sure access to an approved agency that has the authority to issue take-down notices and cease and desist orders.

"We want New Zealanders have easy access to the right tools and support to help them get harmful material removed.

"Over the past decade or so some of our laws have not kept pace with the way New Zealanders are communicating – it makes sense to ensure existing provisions and protections apply in the digital age.

"It’s important to provide the right tools to help victims of cyber-bullying and other forms of harmful digital communications.

"It’s also important we send a clear message that we are taking this issue seriously and that there is hope for victims."

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