Proposed laws target cyber-bullying

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 15/08/2012
Cyber-bullying
UNSHARP MASK: The Harmful Digital Communications proposes new laws to tackle those using the anonymity of the internet to bully and harass others.

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Tough proposed laws will criminalise cyber-bullying and require schools to take action against digital tormentors.

The Law Commission today releases its report on Harmful Digital Communications with many recommendations on how to stamp out the problem, linked to self-harm and suicides.

The paper proposes a new electronic communications offence for those aged 14 and over. It also suggests the establishment of a Communications Tribunal as a "mini-harassment court". This could enforce apologies, take-down and cease-and-desist orders and unmask anonymous offenders - but not impose criminal sanctions or compensation.

The report recommends new legal requirements for all schools to help combat bullying. The National Administrative Guidelines - laying statutory obligations - should require schools to implement effective anti-bullying programmes. Private schools should also be forced to comply.

Law Commissioner Professor John Burrows said cyber-bullying could "derail lives". New technologies could have effects that were "more intrusive and pervasive, and thus more emotionally harmful than in the pre-digital era".

There is no specific requirement on schools to have anti-bullying policies in place. "Nationally consistent policies and procedures" that define what constitutes bullying behaviour and how a school will respond were needed."

Boosting the resources of Netsafe, an internet safety group and mediator, and establishing a tribunal would give teachers support to tackle cyber-bullying.

However, when the offending is serious, schools should refer bullying to the police. Authorities in Britain, Australia and the US are criminalising communication that causes "serious distress and mental harm". But recourse to this law should be a "last resort".

Secondary Principals Association president Patrick Walsh said schools had bullying policies in place and had developed an "extensive educational approach" with students.

"I'm concerned that they seem to be pointing at the locus of control and the cause of it is the school. In fact, a lot of cyber-bullying takes place outside the school in the privacy of a student's own home. What we needed, because we've tried the educative approach - and are quite happy to continue that - is to see cyber-bullying as akin to a hate crime and to take strong measures against those who persistently engage in it."

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Justice Minister Judith Collins asked the commission to fast-track its report after police, chief coroner Neil MacLean and teachers expressed growing concern about the impact of cyber-bullying.

“We must not underestimate the devastating impact this new form of bullying has, particularly on young people - it is contributing to increased truancy, failure at school and emotional problems such as depression, self-harm and suicide.”

TEACHERS VICTIMS OF FACEBOOK ATTACKS

Vindictive pupils are targeting teachers with hate-filled websites, a teaching association says.

Secondary Principals Association president Patrick Walsh said he had been contacted by six principals in recent days concerned about Facebook pages. Schools are struggling to have the content taken off the web.

"There are a large number of students in schools now creating Facebook pages and competing with one another to defame and harass teachers in schools," he said.

"I've had a number of calls from principals asking what they can do. It's happening in Auckland and spreading nationwide. It's deliberately set up to attack teachers: names, photos, talking about their sexual orientations, all kinds of really horrible stuff.

"The principals are having enormous trouble with Facebook trying to get it removed."

Mr Walsh said he was "extremely disappointed" about the lack of action taken against internet giants. "Complaints are made and the harassment carries on; they are really slow to respond; they won't release details of who's doing it; they don't co-operate with the schools... There needs to be some law around the administrators of Facebook, [to] make sure they actually buy into this and take it seriously."

Law Commissioner Professor John Burrows said pupils were not the only targets of cyber-bullying and harassment. "Teachers and the schools themselves are increasingly targeted through fake social media sites and other online publishing platforms."

RECOMMENDED

A new offence targeting digital communication that is "grossly offensive or indecent, obscene or menacing, and which causes harm".

Amending existing laws to ensure provisions apply to digital communications. This would include making it an offence to incite a person to commit suicide, whether the person does or not.

Establishing a Communications Tribunal to enforce take-down orders and cease-and-desist notices - but not impose criminal sanctions or compensation.

Requiring schools to implement effective anti-bullying programmes.

- Fairfax Media

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