Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Telco warns Govt on 'sledgehammer' law

Vodafone says aspects of online-bullying bill raise policing issues.

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Vodafone has warned the Government that its cyber-bullying laws are a "sledgehammer" that could require it to remove entire websites in response to complaints.

The telecommunications company told a parliamentary select committee yesterday that some definitions in the Harmful Digital Communications Bill were too broad and could force it to take drastic measures to deal with offensive material.

The bill introduces new penalties for online bullying and creates a new agency to hear complaints. District courts will be given powers to order "online content hosts" to remove material in cases which the agency can not resolve.

Vodafone New Zealand's head of sustainability and foundation, Abbie Reynolds, told MPs the company was likely to fit the definition of an online content host because it ran a website, provided email services and gave individuals or companies the capability to run their own websites.

However, it did not believe it was responsible for the content on third-party websites, such as blogs.

While it would be easy to "surgically" remove offensive material from its own website or services, it would be more difficult to police an external site.

"If the court required us to block specific content on a third party's website that we might be hosting, that would require a level of intervention that's much more like a sledgehammer," Ms Reynolds said.

Asked by MPs to give an example, she said: "Let's just say we hosted a blog like Whale Oil. And if someone complained about material that was on there ... the district court could conceivably come to us and say, 'You host this. Could you please take it down.'

"And the only option for us would be to remove the website entirely."

Vodafone said the committee should amend the legislation to target only the organisations with direct control of harmful material.

The company said it already took its anti-bullying responsibilities seriously with initiatives such as a "blacklist" that allowed people to block mobile numbers.

A number of heavyweight tech and online companies, including Facebook and Microsoft, have made submissions on the cyber-bullying law changes. They are generally supportive of its intentions but want some amendments to ensure that the law does not over-reach.

Facebook head of policy Mia Garlick said that as it stands, the bill could capture comments on social media that were made in poor taste or poor judgement but were not necessarily harmful. She recommended the definition of harmful communication was narrowed and examples were provided for clarity.

- NZ Herald

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