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Red flags raised over 'Cyberbullying Bill'

Stephen Bell | Sept. 25, 2012
It is aimed at combating harmful digital communications, but those attending an InternetNZ workshop on the Communications (New Media) Bill are concerned it may interfere with free speech.

It is aimed at combating harmful digital communications, but those attending an InternetNZ workshop on the Communications (New Media) Bill are concerned it may interfere with free speech.

More popularly known as "the Cyberbullying Bill", it presents two challenges which are strikingly parallel to the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) legislation, according to delegates at the Wellington workshop last week. First, how can it be enforced in an internationally connected environment where anonymity is technically easy? And, if ISPs and hosting sites are to be asked to take down or block offending content, who will compensate them for the costs incurred?

It's easy to mute scepticism by characterising the proposal as "the Cyberbullying Bill", says InternetNZ technical policy advisor Andy Linton. In reality, it has potentially wider consequences in terms of restricting speech on the internet. "Do I think cyberbullying is a terrible thing? Of course," he told the workshop. "But do I want to give up my civil liberties because someone else is doing something wrong? No I damned well don't."

The vast majority of the action taken under the measure may be straightforward and above criticism, he says; "but it's the corner cases you have to watch for."

InternetNZ CEO Vikram Kumar criticises facile descriptions of the electronic communications environment as a separate realm called cyberspace. "That's just wrong," he told the workshop. "We live here in the real world, with real harms and we need real remedies."

The proposed legislation covers a wide swathe of electronic media including text messages, websites, blog postings and other comment on the internet and social media. Text messages are clearly an important tool for cyberbullying but cannot be dealt with in the same way as web traffic, Kumar points out; concepts such as an 'ISP' are meaningless in the text-messaging world.

The Bill sets up an "approved agency" to initially vet complaints -- a function likely to be taken on by NetSafe. If a complaint is judged sufficiently serious and remains unresolved, it can be taken to a tribunal -- usually one District Court judge, chosen from a panel.

The draft Bill proposes the tribunal can make orders not only to take down an original offending communication but to forbid anyone else from repeating it.

"We could be asking Twitter to monitor millions of tweets in real time," says Kumar. "Is that possible? When I look at the volume and the jurisdictional issues, I have to say I don't think it is."

Other speakers pointed out that the administrators of overseas-based arenas where much potentially harmful content is posted, such as Facebook and YouTube, are assiduous in taking down such content in response to a complaint if they judge it has contravened their terms of service; perhaps, it was suggested, they are already doing a large part of the work envisaged in the draft Bill.

 

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