David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Govt acts on cyber bullies

The Herald's campaign this week highlighted an issue the Government plans to fight. Photo / Getty Images
The Herald's campaign this week highlighted an issue the Government plans to fight. Photo / Getty Images

The Government is accelerating moves to fight cyber-bullying in a bid to limit its devastating effects on young people.

Justice Minister Judith Collins said yesterday that she had asked the Law Commission to bring forward its recommendations on how to reduce the harm caused by cyber-bullies.

The announcement comes at the end of a week in which the Herald has run a high-profile campaign against bullying and investigated what more could be done to reduce it.

Last night, Ms Collins said she had met the commission this week and asked it to focus on cyber-bullying measures as part of its wider report into new media.

"The bullying issue ... is an extremely fast-moving issue, and as we know, 10 years ago, who had Facebook and Twitter?

"It has got to the stage for young people - they in particular are most prone to it - where people can put things on the internet, and it's there forever."

The commission's proposed changes include:

* A new offence of maliciously impersonating another person on the internet.
* Amending the Harassment Act to make it clear it covers racial, sexual and other harassment on the internet.
* Extending the Telecommunications Act's definition of misuse of a "telephone device"' to cover computers and other electronic devices.
* Applying the Human Rights Act to digital publications and designating cyberspace a "public place".
* Making incitement to suicide a criminal offence.

The Herald campaign began on Monday, when Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean backed the proposals to target cyber-bullying because of concerns it was helping to fuel New Zealand's high youth suicide rate.

Judge MacLean said bullying by mobile phone texting or on social media such as Facebook was "often a background factor" in suicides.

"We know it's a risk factor for suicide, and we know that adolescents often talk about interpersonal problems when investigators are looking into not necessarily completed suicides but self-harm."

Netsafe's chief technology officer, Sean Lyons, said his organisation had made a submission to the commission on the issue, and the Government's urgency was welcome news.

"What we're talking about here are very human issues ... and we speak to people on a regular basis where they've fallen victim to these kinds of harassments.

"They're left with the feeling at the end of it, 'Well, who's here to help me? Where do I go next?' And often the case is nowhere, with the law as it stands now."

Police last year investigated the case of Facebook predator Natalia Burgess, 28, who duped dozens of teens into thinking she was one of a series of teenage girls.

Among the fake personas she created were characters who formed romantic relationships with teenage boys and friendships with teenage girls - some of which came to an end when she faked the suicides of her online characters. No charges were laid.

The recommendations highlighted by Ms Collins yesterday were made in the News Media Meets New Media report issued in December.

The commission has finished receiving submissions on the report and is working on cyber-bullying proposals as a priority.

Ms Collins said she expected a report back in about a month. It would be taken to the Ministry of Justice and the Cabinet.

"I think it's very important that we do get on to this because, as we know, youth suicide is a major issue.

"I am concerned that we treat this as a priority, and take action to reduce the potential for harm where we can."

The aims of the Herald campaign against bullying included giving advice on where to seek help, as well as understanding why it happened and the broad social and cultural changes needed to reduce it.

- NZ Herald

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