Cyber bullying law 'good first step'

STACEY KIRK
Last updated 05:00 25/02/2014

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Proposed laws against cyber bullying may not be perfect, but New Zealand would be "crazy" not to adopt them, say experts.

Justice Minister Judith Collins’ Harmful Digital Communication Bill will introduce tough penalties for those who seek to harm others from behind a computer screen.

The bill came amid the furore of the Roast Busters sex scandal – and is back in the public spotlight after the death of Kiwi media personality Charlotte Dawson at the weekend. 

Dawson was found dead on Saturday at her Sydney home after a well-publicised battle with depression. In late 2012, she was hospitalised following a barrage of death threats via Twitter.

After friends of Dawson said they would launch a "Charlotte’s Law" petition calling for reform of Australia’s anti-bullying and harassment laws, Collins tweeted: "Of course our Harmful Digital Communications Bill will help."

Prime Minister John Key said the bill would help but would not eradicate the problem.

"I don't actually myself think New Zealand is any worse than any other country – I'd be absolutely amazed if it was."

A lot of what went on the internet could be ‘‘quite awful’’, he said, adding he did not read most of what was said about him on social media.

"I personally don't spend a lot of time reading that stuff. I take the view that if I was to fill my day with all of that I wouldn't be able to do my job properly."

Public submissions for the bill closed on Friday. It is due to be heard a second time in Parliament in the coming weeks. 

It will create a new offence of sending messages or posting material to cause harm, punishable by up to three months in jail or a $2000 fine.

Inciting someone to commit suicide will also carry a maximum three-year jail sentence.

Collins has said criminal offences would be a last resort, but it was time to stand up to bullies who "lurk in the shadows of the internet to harass and humiliate their victims".

Netsafe chief technology officer Sean Lyons said the proposed legislation was a good first step.

"I think that what we’re looking at in its current form...it’s looking proportional to the kind of harms that are going on," he said.

"I think it’s also a law that’s concentrating on the content and not the people and these are the two things that are really important and possibly world-leading in terms of focus."

But in its submission, digital civil rights group Tech Liberty feared the bill would be ineffective in too many cases where it might be needed most, while being too effective in the cases "which are most problematic to civil liberties".

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People who anonymously abused others online would simply move to using overseas services, making it harder to track them down, the group said.

Lyons said regardless of that, any tangible reduction in harm would make the laws worthwhile.

"That’s also possible, and there isn’t a law out there that’s 100 per cent effective, there will always be loopholes and people will always find them. But the idea that if it’s not 100 per cent effective then we shouldn’t do it is crazy."

Auckland University psychologist Associate Professor Niki Harre said for her, whether or not the law was effective was beside the point.

"I see law as sending a really clear signal as to what is approved of and not approved of in this situation."

Dr Harre said the most common strategy for young people in particular who were being bullied online was to ignore it, and not alert authorities. 

"But what we’re recognising more and more is sticks and stones may break your bones but words can break your heart - these things do cause real damage."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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