Editorial: Harmful Digital Communications Bill goes too far

ACT leader David Seymour and four Green MPs were on the same side when they opposed the Harmful Digital Communications ...
Michael Bradley

ACT leader David Seymour and four Green MPs were on the same side when they opposed the Harmful Digital Communications Bill in Parliament.

OPINION: Despite a wave of online opposition, Parliament has passed a new law against cyber bullying: the Harmful Digital Communications Bill.

As even its opponents acknowledge, the law's intentions are good and the need for something like it was clear. Unfortunately, as it is drafted, the law goes too far – it may well pick up in its drift-net the sorts of noise and criticism that make for the talk of a free society.

Start with what's right about the law: its attempt to thrash out new measures for a new problem. While there have always been bullies, and while schoolyard taunts have never been fun, phones and the internet have given both a more anonymous, frightening quality.

They've also made it possible for such abuse to be amplified – a photo sent over email, or a video posted to a website, can quickly reach thousands of eyeballs, and cause lasting misery.

In a country with a tragically high youth suicide rate, such change cannot be ignored. Neither can the lack of easy recourse for those affected – even where previous laws did cover such abuse, taking action was often too complicated and expensive for most people.

So something needed to be done, and the law sets up an agency to be a first port of call for victims. This outfit, yet to be fleshed out, can advise victims and try to mediate between those involved. It seems like a welcome tool for helping young people test out their options.

If the agency makes no headway, victims can keep going to the courts, so long as there is a serious or repeated breach of certain principles that causes them "serious emotional distress". The courts can issue takedown orders – or even, if there's an intention to cause harm, a maximum sentence of two years in prison or a $50,000 fine.

Here is where things get more worrying. The penalties at stake are substantial, yet the "communications principles" are too broad – they capture any digital communication that is judged "indecent", "false" or "used to harass an individual", as well as a catalogue of other sins.

As commentators have been pointing out for some time, does a Fair Go investigation of a fraudster that is posted online meet these criteria? What about a cartoon that makes light of a venerated religious figure? Or critical stories about a politician's expenses?

These are all common enough – and it's all too easy to think of those on the receiving end of such coverage crying distress or harassment. That's not what such material is; it is fair, even vital, use of free speech, and it needs protecting.

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There are already civil avenues, such as defamation law, for those who feel unduly harmed by such coverage – equally, there are important defences to such actions. The new law should have included similar exemptions or qualifications for reporting, for humour, and for honest opinions based on facts.

This isn't only a media complaint. An unlikely combination of MPs voted against this week's law – four Green MPs and the sole ACT MP. Labour, too, had a convoluted story about disliking the law even while voting for it.

It's done for now. But that doesn't need to be the end of it. Worrying uses of the law should come to light soon if they are happening. Parliament should be ready to revisit the law if it proves as stifling as feared.

 - The Dominion Post

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