InternetNZ to hold workshops on draft cyberbullying Bill

Policy lead Susan Chalmers warns of 'scope creep'

InternetNZ intends to hold workshops on suggested legal measures against 'cyberbullying', as detailed in the Law Commission’s ministerial briefing last week.

InternetNZ policy lead Susan Chalmers says the organisation’s initial thoughts are that there is a danger of scope-creep and an uncomfortable carving out of the electronic message space as distinct from other forms of speech.

“The law should focus on the activities and the harms that they do, regardless of the medium through which these activities are expressed,” says Chalmers.

The Commission’s 159-page briefing examines the idea of special status for electronic media, and the Parliamentary Counsel Office has drafted a Communications (New Media) Bill. This includes setting up an agency to assess and investigate complaints arising from electronic media, help resolve problems, and liaise with internet service providers, as well as with schools, departments and other relevant agencies.

The proposed Bill provides for mediation and, in the case of an unresolved or sufficiently urgent complaint, reference to a tribunal, which can order a number of remedies, including ordering a host to take down offending material and/or to identify the author.

A set of “communications principles” are laid out, similar to the Privacy Act’s privacy principles, in that they attempt to describe unacceptable behaviour in online communications.

The briefing justifies special treatment for comments in electronic media on the grounds that “[the] facility to generate, manipulate and disseminate digital information which can be accessed instantaneously and continuously is producing types of abuse which have no precedent or equivalent in the pre-digital world.”

It also suggests “there are significant power and information asymmetries [between bully and victim] in cyberspace which mean not all are able to harness these new technologies to defend themselves from illegitimate attack.”

While it is true that expressing an insult in electronic media is easy compared with putting it in a more physical medium with equivalent reach, the according of any special status for digital media “needs to be looked into more deeply”, Chalmers says.

“These are our [InternetNZ’s] initial thoughts”, she says and they will be refined through the workshops.

The scope of an anti-bullying law needs to be “very narrow” and confined to the specific harms identified by the Law Commission’s paper, says Chalmers. In the draft Bill there are already, perhaps signs of an over-broad application, such as the sixth of its “communication principles” – “a communication should not make a false allegation.”

There are clearly freedom-of-speech issues to be discussed around such stipulations, says Chalmers. She hesitates to say outright that the draft goes too far, but rather that its reach is “ill-defined”.

The Commission’s briefing and the draft Bill attempt to outline the behaviour of a good cyber-citizen, but covers ground that has traditionally been the province of self-regulation, she says. The emphasis also seems to be on proscribing negative actions rather than emphasising positive behaviour.

However, overall, InternetNZ thinks the Law Commission has done a good job of identifying the issues, Chalmers says.

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