The number of charges made under the Harmful Digital Communications Act has soared in just three years, according to figures released this week by the Ministry of Justice.

Since the establishment of the act in 2015, the number of people charged has risen from 18 in the 2015-16 year, to 85 for the following 12-month period and 107 for the 2017-18 year.

For the current year, 72 people were convicted, nine were "other proved" and 26 cases were not proved.

Netsafe CEO Martin Cocker said the increase in the number of charges was to be expected.

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"The act is brand new so you have a process of the police understanding how to use it and then starting to process cases through, so you would always expect to see a growth for a few years," he said.

From the 15 justice service areas throughout New Zealand, the Nelson/Marlborough/West Coast, Canterbury, Waikato and north Auckland regions had the highest number of charges under the act.

While the Nelson/Marlborough/West Coast region only had three charges in the 2015-16 year, it surmounted 20 charges in 2016-17 and eight in 2017-18.

Three Cantabrians were also charged in 2015-16, along with 17 in 2016-17, and 10 in 2017-18.

Both north Auckland and Hamilton had 16 people charged in the 2017-18 year.

Breaches of the Harmful Digital Communications Act are dealt with by both civil and criminal processes.

Netsafe CEO Martin Cocker. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Netsafe CEO Martin Cocker. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The police manage the criminal charges and Netsafe is a part of the civil process.

"For most people they are not sure which track they fall under, but if someone has been abused or harassed online we recommend they call Netsafe and we will talk them through what are their best options," Cocker said.

Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Dalziel, of the Cybercrime Unit, said a three step test is used to determine if an offence has been committed, including; intent, reasonableness and harm.

The act defines this as when a person posts a digital communication, intending that it cause harm - defined as serious emotional distress - to a victim; when posting the communication would cause harm to an ordinary reasonable person in the position of the victim; and when posting the communication causes harm to the victim.

Of the total number of people convicted under the act since it was established, 24 people have been imprisoned, 17 were given home detention and 15 were given community detention.

Other sentences over the three year period include; four under intensive supervision, 27 for community work, six under supervision, seven given monetary sentences and five given deferment.

Dalziel said there is no "typical" case when it comes to the people who commit these offences.

"We have seen male and female offenders and cases where the victim knows the offender, and others where they have been targeted by people they don't know," he said.

Cocker said a lot of the criminal cases have been around the un-consensual sharing of intimate imagery - what is commonly referred to as
Cocker said a lot of the criminal cases have been around the un-consensual sharing of intimate imagery - what is commonly referred to as "revenge porn". Photo / 123RF

However, Cocker said two thirds of the people who approach Netsafe looking for assistance are female.

Statistics also show that 48 of the 53 people convicted in 2017-18 were male, as well as 36 out of 42 in 2016-17 and 100 per cent of those charged in 2015-16.

The ethnicity with the highest number of convictions was European, followed by Maori, while the median age of offenders ranged between 20 and 34-years-old.

Cocker said a lot of the criminal cases have been around the un-consensual sharing of intimate imagery – what is commonly referred to as "revenge porn".

"Obviously if you never create the content then you will never be at risk, but realistically it is a relatively common practise and it is important we put the onus on the people that are in possession of it not to use it in this way."

Dalziel said the important thing to remember is that once you lose control of any electronic information, it can be forwarded or shared to appear anywhere on the internet.

"Removing content from the internet is challenging. Getting help is the first step, and finding out what options are available to them," he said.

"This could be talking to a trusted friend, or contacting Netsafe. Some of these cases can be very embarrassing to the victim, and all the agencies involved are committed to getting the best outcome for the victim."

Cocker said there needed to be more education around the act and the laws that come with it.

"Many people who breach the Harmful Digital Communications Act wouldn't be aware that they are breaking the law in this country," he said.

"The law in New Zealand is pretty advanced compared to many other countries. We have a system, process and law whereas most counties don't.

"A lot of the behaviour that people think is allowed online or is normalised online actually isn't and some of it is breaching the law, but people need to understand that.

"The more people know about the law, and the more they recognise that it exists, then hopefully the more they will take it into consideration when they are thinking about whether they might or might not do something abusive online."

Dalziel agreed that education remains key to preventing these types of offences.

• Go to www.netsafe.org.nz for more information.