Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Controversial cyberbullying law passes

The controversial bill aims to crack down on cyberbullying. Photo / Thinkstock
The controversial bill aims to crack down on cyberbullying. Photo / Thinkstock

• New cyberbullying law will create a criminal offence of intentionally causing harm by posting a digital communication, punishable by up to two years' imprisonment or a maximum fine of $50,000.

• Complaints can be made to an approved agency, which will attempt to resolve the issue and may contact companies like Google to get material taken down.

A wide-reaching law that will criminalise online communications deemed deliberately harmful has passed into law - despite unexpected and last minute opposition.

The Harmful Digital Communications Bill has passed its third reading, 116 votes in favour to 5 votes against.

The controversial law is designed to crack-down on cyber-bullying, but opponents have warned it is too vague and could be used as a weapon against free speech.

Act Party leader David Seymour was expected to be the only MP to vote against the legislation, after reluctant support from Labour and the Greens.

However, this afternoon the Greens chose to allow the rare step of a split vote, with Gareth Hughes, Russel Norman, Julie Anne Genter and Steffan Browning opposing the law.

"Most of the Green Party caucus is supporting the Harmful Digital Communications Bill due to our concern for New Zealanders' rights to personal security and the right to be safe from cyber-bullying," co-leader Metiria Turei said

"This legislation has received strong support from organisations such as the Human Rights Commission. However, there have been strong submissions from media organisations who are concerned that this legislation may have a chilling effect upon freedom of speech."

A new offence will now be created of sending messages or posting material online that were intended to cause harm, and did so.

Another new offence will be incitement to commit suicide in situations where the person does not then attempt to take their own life. Internet service providers or companies such as Facebook or Google could be asked by a New Zealand agency to remove a harmful communication.

The legislation progressed after the so-called Roast Busters case, in which teenage boys boasted online about sex with drunk and under-age girls.

Justice Minister Amy Adams has said the criminal provisions in the new law are there for only the most serious cases, and the threshold for prosecution is very high.

Children under 14 can't be charged with cyberbullying and those aged 14 to 16 will go into the youth justice system.

Mr Seymour told the House that the bill was a "knee jerk" reaction that was a "case study in bad law making", that would have a chilling effect on free speech.

He said principles in the legislation - including that sensitive personal facts should not be disclosed and communications should not be indecent - were "appropriate if we were about to embark on a school camp", but should not be written into law.

"It says that you cannot offend somebody. So, for instance, would the Flight of the Conchords song Albie the Racist Dragon be offensive if it was communicated online?

"Well, we are told...that of course this law would never be used in such a silly and unsensible way. That's the problem with this law - it gives no protection. We are supposed to rely on the beneficence of the enforcers. Mr Speaker, that is bad law making."

Mr Seymour said the Independent Police Conduct Authority had examined the Roast Busters case and found that it could have been dealt with under existing law.

Loopholes could be closed by amending existing laws, he said, including extending the intimate covert filming provisions in the Crimes Act to cover "revenge porn". Mr Seymour said other online behaviour like sexual grooming was already illegal.

Speaking in support, NZ First deputy leader Tracey Martin said internet cyber-bullying had inflicted serious trauma on young people, and that should not be trivialised.

- NZ Herald

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