New Zealand is a country of almost five million inhabitants, some 29 million sheep and, on the evidence, plenty of hurt feelings. The latter has been tackled by sweeping new parliamentary legislation making cyber-bulling a criminal offence while guaranteeing the protection of people emotionally affected by online “abuse”.
The Harmful Digital Communications Bill – as approved and published in the capital, Wellington – notes that the district court can of Tuesday force some websites to publish an apology, offer a right of reply by the affected individual, or even force the deletion or disablement of any material a claimant is offended by.
The bill will censor posts deemed offensive, racist, abusive or show religious intolerance. The new legislation states that any online post that creates “serious emotional distress” and is subjected to “negotiation, mediation or persuasion,” but continues and creates the offences of not complying with an order, and “causing harm by posting digital communication,” is deemed criminal.
At the same time the court can also attempt to suppress the identity of the aggrieved individual if they feel the individual may incur more harm by making the defendant’s identity public. Hence, those making the claims of harassment can maintain anonymity against their alleged aggressor(s).
“No legislation is perfect, and this is no exception,” current InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter told the NZ National Business Review after the bill was passed Tuesday.
“Like all law that applies in a fast-moving technology environment, the risk is of unintended consequences – or chosen balances of rights not working out in practice. In recognition of this, InternetNZ calls upon parliamentarians to keep a careful eye on the implementation of this legislation to ensure that appropriate balance is maintained.
“We must all remain vigilant that we have appropriate responses to online harm without damaging free expression.”
The bill passed 116-to-5 vote but Gareth Hughes, one of the four NZ Green Party MPs to vote ‘nay’, said it was overly broad and “risks limiting our freedom of expression.”
You can say that again. Put simply, if you go on the internet in NZ and make a passing comment or observation that hurts somebody’s feelings you better be ready to go to court and defend yourself because the government has decided it will be the judge of what words you can and cannot use and the context of their delivery.
Free speech being not so free after all in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
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