Any curb on freedom of speech is a serious step that should never be taken without good reason. The steps the Government intends to take against cyber-bullying meet that proviso. The harm that can be done by cruel and threatening use of the internet requires new law to bring the web within the reasonable boundaries of all communications.
Harassment, abuse and embarrassment by text to a personal phone or false postings on websites can be much more constant and insidious than a poison pen letter or misuse of a telephone, already an offence. As Justice Minister Judith Collins said in her announcement, "Tormenters are able to harass their targets 24 hours a day, seven days a week, wherever they go, and the trail of abuse lives on in cyberspace, following victims for years."
Her legislation will make it an offence to send messages or post material online that is grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or knowingly false. That sort of material will be punishable by up to three months' imprisonment or a $2000 fine.
The law will also create a new offence of incitement to commit suicide, whether or not suicide resulted or was attempted, which present law requires for an offence to be committed. The suggestion alone will be punishable by up to three years' jail, as it should be. The difficulty will be in deciding when abuse and harassment that stops short of the suggestion amounts to the same thing. The decision will rest with district court judges, as it must since a prison sentence might be imposed. The use of the courts is the minister's one departure from Law Commission recommendations which suggested a dedicated communications tribunal be set up. Instead she has designed a two-tier system, giving independent agencies such as Netsafe the authority to resolve complaints of less serious harm and referring the more serious cases to a district court, which besides its punitive powers will be able to issue take-down orders and cease-and-desist notices.
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The aim will be to resolve issues quickly, recognising that the longer false and malicious messages are on a site the more damage is done. Website hosts and internet service providers will be asked to remove or moderate clearly offensive material.
The lawmakers themselves have moved with admirable speed since cyber-bullying was highlighted by the Herald in a series we published last year. Ms Collins asked the commission, which was already reviewing wider media regulation, to give particular urgency to misuse of so-called social media in May. The commission delivered its report in August and the legislation outlined last week is expected to be passed this year.
Labour and Green critics fairly warn of a danger that one person's idea of menacing or offensive material could be another person's robust criticism, particularly where political views are under discussion. Care will be required by the complaints agency and the courts to ensure that free and, at times, fierce public debate is not harmed.
But the distinction between aggressive and malicious comment is usually obvious. The agency and the courts might face greater difficulty distinguishing one person's definition of bullying from another's. Unduly sensitive recipients will make complaints. The agency's cases may be harder than the seriously offensive messages that will be passed to the courts.
But with good sense and due regard for freedom of exchange, the new regulators of cyber messaging should be able to make the web safer.