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Special treatment for harmful digital messages 'worldwide trend'

Stephen Bell | April 9, 2013
There is case for treating digital messages differently from those of other media when it comes to cyberbullying says InternetNZ policy lead Susan Chalmers.

There is case for treating digital messages differently from those of other media when it comes to cyberbullying says InternetNZ policy lead Susan Chalmers.

The case for technological neutrality in law has been energetically made in online discussion among InternetNZ's membership, following government moves towards a regime for deterring "cyberbullying".

"On one side, cyberbullying is a very unique, internet-enabled form of abuse deserving of a targeted response," Chalmers says. "On the other, bullying is bullying no matter the environment, so it should be dealt with under existing laws, keeping the internet free from unnecessary regulation.

"This online/offline duality gives a useful debate, but we're only having it because we've lived in a world without internet. When it comes to law that touches the internet, we should think about the generations that will have to follow it in the future and near-future, not the past or present," she says.

Real time harm

"There is a worldwide trend of transformation in judicial systems to deal 'in real time' with the internet, it's the direction in which we're headed, and New Zealand has the agility and the opportunity to be able to create something that alleviates the harm of cyberbullying without hurting the internet or its intermediaries, weakening fundamental rights or invading the average person's privacy.

"This is no simple task - there is much work to be done on the proposal to make it right and we sincerely hope to work with officials, the Minister [Judith Collins] and the Select Committee to ensure the finest possible balance is struck."

In broad accordance with the recommendations of the Law Commission in a ministerial briefing paper, Cabinet has agreed to a two-stage procedure for dealing with harmful digital communications. It sees a new civil enforcement regime including an "approved agency" as the first port of call for complaints of harm.

If this body cannot come up with a solution acceptable to the victim and the alleged perpetrator, it will be able to refer serious complaints to the District Court, which will be able to issue sanctions such as take-down orders and cease-and-desist notices.

Unique form of harassment

"The internet has provided a forum for a unique form of harassment that is easy to create and distribute and difficult to remove," says a Cabinet Paper on the proposed regime to Cabinet's Social Policy Committee..

"What differentiates harmful digital communications and bullying from their offline counterparts is the:

potential viral nature of the harassment;

ubiquity and ease of access to technology in modern life;

ease of dissemination to a global audience;

persistence of the information and the great difficulty in removing it; and

facility for anonymity.

 

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