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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.

Cyberbullying is a subset of bullying in general, said several speakers, and to attack electronic communications specifically only deals with part of the problem.

"We have to make sure that by concentrating on electronic communications we're not losing sight of the real world of bullying and harmful speech," says blogger David Farrar.

Thomas Beagle of TechLiberty says limits on freedom of speech are not to be taken lightly; the Bill of Rights Act says speech should only be limited in ways that can be justified in a free and democratic society. The burden of proof is on those who would limit those rights to demonstrate that the suggested measures meet that high threshold, he says.

Although some measures, such as those relating to harassment, can be regarded as extensions to existing law, some go beyond its boundaries, Beagle says. For example, the Bill expands the concept of illegal "denigration" beyond those contained in the Human Rights Act to, for example, criticising someone's religion or ethical belief.

There is an "upside" for managers of sites where controversial comment is likely to be made, says Farrar; "instead of mediating between squabbling parties on the blog, I'd love to be able to refer them to an official body," he says.

The first workshop, in Wellington set out 18 points that delegates see as needing further elaboration. These include the timeframe allowed to elapse between the comment and the complaint; the extent of measures to exclude 'frivolous and vexatious' complaints; the definition of an ISP; the status of comments made by professional media organisations; right of appeal for the defendant; the definition of "significant emotional harm"; the conflict of perceived urgency of action with legal due process; and methods for measuring the practical success of the legislation in stemming harm.

These questions will be considered by InternetNZ in arriving at its own submission on the draft Bill.

Cabinet approval sought by year's end

Justice Minister Judith Collins says if Cabinet accepts the Law Commission's recommendations as expressed in its report and in the draft Communications (New Media) Bill, a new Bill text will be created to be put to Parliament. This is likely to happen by early next year.

"The government is carefully considering the Law Commission's report and draft Bill, drafted by the Parliamentary Counsel Office to aid discussion," says Collins.

When the government's response is written, the minister will seek Cabinet approval of the response "by the end of the year", she says.

"If Cabinet agrees to implement the Law Commission's recommendations, a Bill will be drafted."

Concerns were expressed at the Wellington workshop that the perceived urgency of a cyberbullying remedy might lead to legislation being "fast-tracked" with omission or shortening of some of the usual stages.

"I expect the legislation will go through the usual Parliamentary process, including consideration by a Select Committee," Collins says.


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