New Zealand Parliament Overwhelmingly Decides Free Speech Must Take A Backseat To Cyberbullying Concerns

from the being-mean-but-with-technology?-that's-a-jailing dept

New Zealand is the latest country to "do something" about online trolling. A rather comprehensive anti-cyberbullying act passed its third reading in the Parliament by a significant margin (116-5) and is awaiting royal assent. The "Harmful Digital Communications Act" criminalizes plenty of speech, mainly through the use of broad wording.

Principle 1
A digital communication should not disclose sensitive personal facts about an individual.


Principle 2
A digital communication should not be threatening, intimidating, or menacing.

Principle 3
A digital communication should not be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the position of the affected individual.

Principle 4
A digital communication should not be indecent or obscene.

Principle 5
A digital communication should not be used to harass an individual.

Principle 6
A digital communication should not make a false allegation.

Principle 7
A digital communication should not contain a matter that is published in breach of confidence.

Principle 8
A digital communication should not incite or encourage anyone to send a message to an individual for the purpose of causing harm to the individual.

Principle 9
A digital communication should not incite or encourage an individual to commit suicide.

Principle 10
A digital communication should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.
Violating these principles could result in a two-year prison sentence. Encouraging someone to take their own life could result in an additional year in prison, even if no suicide attempt is made.

A quick glance at the principles reveals several flaws. First off, journalists are going to have a hard time avoiding disclosing "sensitive facts about an individual." While the courts are obliged to weigh the public interest during enforcement of this act, it sets a very low bar for those who wish to file complaints. And while deliberating this aspect, courts may issue interim orders to take down "offending" material until the matter is resolved.

That's just one aspect that chills speech. Lowering the bar for "harm" to "serious emotional distress" is another. The wording hints at objectivity with "reasonable person" but also asks the "reasonable person" to act as an empathetic proxy for the person filing the complaint.

Principle 10 fortunately limits itself to targeted individuals, rather than criminalizing the denigration of entire groups. Ignorance shouldn't be criminalized. There's far too much of it in the world, but putting people in jail for being racist, sexist or bashing their least-favorite religion does nothing to change the minds of those involved and will needlessly harm the lives of people who are far more stupid than dangerous.

On top of this, the new law would add additional responsibilities for social media platforms and site owners. They are invited to apply for New Zealand-specific "safe harbors," but these only provide them temporary immunity from prosecution. Once the court order arrives, platform/site owners are obliged to remove the offending post(s). Failure to do so puts the site owners in line for $50,000 fines and/or prison terms. So, it's not really a "safe harbor." All it does is prevent the person filing the complaint from going after the platform/site first, rather than the person actually posting the offending content.

The arguments for the passage of the bill were the expected ones. Legislator Jacqui Dean admitted there were concerns about the new law -- especially considering there were plenty of laws on the books already to deal with a majority of the offenses (defamation, harassment, etc.), but still felt more was needed because children.
There have been many thoughtful contributions on this Harmful Digital Communications Bill. I do acknowledge that it is a legislative response that some view as impinging on freedom of speech and perhaps might be too heavy-handed. What I would say is that the protection of our young people in particular—their protection from cyber-bullying—is so very important that I think this bill is a very good step, and I commend it to the House.
This argument -- from Deputy Leader Tracey Martin -- is particularly horrifying, especially considering her earlier statement that the internet's mutating "threats" are the reason new legislation is needed. Martin thinks there should be a clear delineation between those who receive the "public interest" exemption and those who don't, despite her previous acknowledgment that the entire situation remains in a constant state of flux.
Ms Ardern addressed the question of whether—there was conversation at the select committee—bloggers were really “media”. I would make this statement: media can certainly be bloggers; bloggers cannot, and should not, ever be considered as media. The media has actually taken training. They have criteria. They have boundaries that they work inside of, and they can be held accountable inside of them. Anybody who wants to set up a blog and just vent their opinion should not be considered media. So with regard to that, I would hope—and I know it was pushed by certain members of the blogging society at the select committee—that the line maintained by media, true media, is maintained.
Some of the worst arguments appeared outside of the legislation. This editorial, written by Minister of Justice, Amy Adams, hits all the speech tropes in three sentences.
It's worth remembering that no right or freedom is absolute. Just as you can't scream fire in a crowded theatre, nor should you be allowed to threaten someone online, incite people to kill themselves on social media, or share revenge porn with the world, and claim that as your democratic right. Our rights can, and should be, subject to reasonable limits where demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
The only mitigating factor in Adam's "free speech is more about what's not allowed" argument is that her view comes from the viewpoint of a New Zealander, rather than someone deliberately misreading the First Amendment.

One of the few to vote against the bill (and against his own party) was Gareth Hughes, who made several good points during his address, starting with the bill's creation of two sets of laws that treat online and offline very differently.
In my time here I have seen some very badly drafted tech legislation. We have seen the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act and the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act, or the “Skynet Act”, where badly conceived law came together with under-informed legislators, all with the best of interests, to pass terrible laws. So, for the first time in my parliamentary career, today I am casting a separate vote from my party, because I believe this law, this bill, is the wrong solution to the right question, which is “What do we do about cyber-bullying?”. Ultimately, this bill is overly broad, it risks limiting our freedom of expression and the important role of the media in our democracy, and it introduces a precedent that one thing can be legal offline but illegal onlineI believe there are better ways to go about reducing cyber-bullying, such as the approved agency and funding education, without making a new criminal offence just for the digital world.

[...]

As Tim Watkin has pointed out, this law applies not just to bloggers but to journalists as well. He points to the ludicrous situation that a public interest story of, say, the corrupt MP, as we have given the example of before, who is subject to harm by the story, would be perfectly legal if it were published in a newspaper but punishable if posted on that media organisation’s website or transmitted electronically.
David Seymour (Leader - ACT) noted the bill's "do something" origin and its overall awfulness.
This bill is a case study in bad lawmaking. All of the elements of bad lawmaking exist in this bill. Not since we microchipped dogs in the hope that it would prevent a particularly egregious dog event has there has been such a bad law before this House. First, you had the high-profile and really quite disgraceful event. Then you had the discovery that in actual fact the laws in place had not been properly used by the agency in place to prevent the harms that occurred there. Then you had the knee-jerk reaction from the politicians, who said: “We must do something. This bill is indeed something; therefore, we will pass this bill, and it must be the right thing to do.”

[...]

What exactly does this bill do? Well, the first thing that it does is introduce a set of communications principles that might be appropriate if we were about to embark on a school camp, but which are not appropriate for the governance of 4.5 million people, many of whom are adults—and the children among them are the responsibility of adults. It says that you cannot offend somebody. So, for instance, would Flight of the Conchords’ song Albi the Racist Dragon be offensive if it was communicated online? Well, we are told, in defence of the “badly burnt Albanian boy” from last week, that of course this law would never be used in such a silly and un-sensible way. That is the problem with the law: it gives no protection. We are supposed to rely on the beneficence of the enforcers. That is bad lawmaking.
Seymour also pointed out the "government knows best" condescension being displayed toward opponents of the broadly-worded bill.
The pace of development on the internet is so rapid that, in actual fact, the incentive for the hosts of content is to give good experiences. If it is true that harm is being done, then the one person who has both the incentive and the means to rapidly mitigate that harm is the host, whether that be Facebook, or Ask.fm, or Twitter, or whoever else hosts the website. For the same reason that harmful digital communication becomes exponentially greater, those people have the tools to mitigate it. But you do not hear that from the Government or from the supporters of this bill. There is a moralising tone from them: if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear; that these vague principles will not be enforced for silly reasons, you understand; that as long as you are sensible and you are doing nothing wrong, it will not be used against you.
This mentality is fully on display in the Minister of Justice's op-ed:
Some commentators claim the bill's measures erode freedom of expression and prevent genuine media reporting. These fears are unfounded and I'm confident the bill has struck the right balance between preventing real harm and preserving valuable free speech.

Critics have hysterically claimed it will muzzle journalists from pursuing stories and restrict cartoonists from publishing satire.

This is simply untrue.
In defense of her claims, the Minister points at the bill's intentions.
The bill aims to stop and prevent the circulation of online abuse, not curtail people's freedoms of expression or suppress the media.
As if broadly-written laws have never resulted in unintended consequences and mission creep. According to Adams, the government is a good steward of citizens' rights and never acts out of malice, self-interest or pure stupidity. The government can be trusted to fight for citizens rather than allow the powerful to abuse a bad law for their own ends. Really. Trust us. This time we mean it.

Filed Under: cyberbullying, free speech, new zealand, trolling


Reader Comments

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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 6 Jul 2015 @ 4:56am

    A digital communication should not be threatening, intimidating, or menacing.

    Nothing is said about context. And even within a context some things said can sound threatening.

    A digital communication should not be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the position of the affected individual.

    Who defines what is grossly offensive? One of the involved parts may use dirty words regularly while the other may be some sort of pure saint that will be grossly offended. Where do you draw the line?

    A digital communication should not be indecent or obscene.

    Couple breaks up, 'sexy' messages used to screw the other part. Friend makes obscene joke, gets into some bad argument, other part files lawsuit over the obscene joke, comment.

    This law is beyond bad. It spells selective enforcement all over it. In any case...

    We are supposed to rely on the beneficence of the enforcers. That is bad lawmaking.

    This is the main problem with law makers today. You must ALWAYS assume somebody in the future will be bad and will abuse of legal loopholes or broad wording. You must assume that at some point, some authoritarian asshole will be there thus the laws must be narrowly focused while allowing plenty of room for defense.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Jul 2015 @ 6:59am

    So the road to hell is paved with "Won't someone think of the children."

    The best part of all will be the talking heads who rammed this through then having to cheerlead a child being prosecuted so saying something in anger in a game, and facing jail for years.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2015 @ 7:13am

    A digital communication should not make a false allegation.

    How the corporations and politicians will love that one, as it allows almost anything they do not like said about their character or products to be taken down, at least until it is proven true in court.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jack Bower is my mentor, 6 Jul 2015 @ 7:32am

    The problem with all online behaviour laws

    There is never any context, telling someone to kill themselves is wrong and should not be encouraged but there is a real difference between posting such comments in a 4chan thread(depressed people should not hang out on 4chan) and posting the same comment on the recent popehat depression thread, these laws will never be able to tell the difference, I always harken back to the idea that this is all happening in our respective living rooms, because in a sense it is but in another more real way it's really not, and we cannot seem to decide which is which, if I had 4chan in my living room I would not expect sympathy or really any niceness at all that is not true of the popehat thread, I also would not have 4chan in my living room because they are assholes and if people are seeking help there, there is something so wrong in their lives that their families and friends should be in prison.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2015 @ 7:38am

      Re: The problem with all online behaviour laws

      these laws will never be able to tell the difference

      The problem is that they DONT want them to tell the difference. The very nature of the legal system is to intentionally write overly broad language to avoid letting any little thing slip through the cracks.

      That is just the nature of a profession that is corrupt.

      If laws are written in such a way that lawyers are required then the law has become and undue burden on its citizens.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Jack Bower is my mentor, 6 Jul 2015 @ 8:04am

        Re: Re: The problem with all online behaviour laws

        While I agree with you I just meant to point out that it is not necessary for it to be like this and most people don't understand that, and it is hard to understand that if your kid is being followed by assholes on facebook, or via text or you've been mobbed on twit, I think that it is important to point out that these are laws written by sociopaths for sociopaths and that IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THAT WAY.

        https://vimeo.com/groups/96331/videos/80799353

        Just because I think that anyone that thinks about the internet, how we got here, and what the basis of it is should watch this(it's 3 eps)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2015 @ 7:45am

    Grossly offensive? Seriously? Any internet communication could be made to fit that category, if someone in New Zealand decides they are grossly offended. That reasoning is too broad a definition.

    "A digital communication should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability."

    Seriously? That eliminates the majority of online communication. Good thing the United States still has free speech, to some degree.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 6 Jul 2015 @ 7:53am

    Principle 1
    A digital communication should not disclose sensitive personal facts about an individual.

    So if I say to someone, "You're so gay," and they actually are a homosexual male...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 6 Jul 2015 @ 7:59am

    They forgot one.
    Principle 11
    Behaviour as described in any of the above ten principles must be sustained for a significant period of time before it can be considered a crime.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    MadAsASnake (profile), 6 Jul 2015 @ 8:02am

    So, having communicated this bill to me digitally, I must inform the NZ government (My government) that I find this bill offensive, and therefore in violation of itself.

    I'll stand back and let some petty bureaucrat's head explode with that one.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tom (profile), 6 Jul 2015 @ 8:03am

    This will get sorted out during the next political campaign when the existing members of parliament are running for re-election. How many campaigns can make very many website, blog, facebook, or other postings about their opponents without violating principles 1,4,5,6,7?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2015 @ 8:40am

    Those principles are a threat to free expression and free speech. I'm waiting to see how the United Nations responds to this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 6 Jul 2015 @ 9:20am

    Let's review political campaign speech restrictions:

    Principle 1
    Politicians may not discuss an opponent's family, health condition, or sexual proclivities.

    Principle 2
    Politicians shall no longer suggest their opponents shall be shot.

    Principle 3
    Politicians shall no longer suggest offensive things like abortionists are murderers, or death panels, or any of that offensive stuff.

    Principle 5
    Do politicians do anything else in mud-slinging ads?

    Principle 6
    No more calling your opponent a thief, a charlatan, an incompetent.

    Principle 7
    No more mentioning your opponent's business deals.

    Principle 8
    No more fanning the flames of the committees or the base, to get them to smear the opposition.

    Principle 10
    Every politician in the country is going to be locked up about three seconds after election campaigns start.

    Ummm...now that I think about it, maybe this IS a good thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2015 @ 9:42am

    "Harmful Digital Communications Act"

    Well named. Presumably "harmful" modifies "Act" rather than "communications".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2015 @ 10:30am

    Why only "digital"?

    Why not just "a communication should not..."?
    Why should digital be any different in principle than analog?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 6 Jul 2015 @ 11:35am

    Principle 2
    A digital communication should not be threatening, intimidating, or menacing.

    So I guess if someone doesn't pay their ISP bill (or any bill really) it will be illegal for the ISP to send them an email threatening to turn off their service.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Yes I know I'm commenting anonymously, 6 Jul 2015 @ 11:54am

    Let us consider miss Manning.
    Now, I am in violation of principle 1.
    Note to self: Do not travel to New Sealand in forseeable future.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2015 @ 12:59pm

    replace victim with Government and you have a means to silence any criticism of their policies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Village Idiot (profile), 6 Jul 2015 @ 2:06pm

    |Harmful to Digital Communications Bill

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 6 Jul 2015 @ 2:53pm

    Left the best part out

    Ms Ardern addressed the question of whether—there was conversation at the select committee—bloggers were really “media”. I would make this statement: media can certainly be bloggers; bloggers cannot, and should not, ever be considered as media. The media has actually taken training. They have criteria. They have boundaries that they work inside of, and they can be held accountable inside of them. And most importantly, we've got them nice and tamed, so they say only what we want them to, something we haven't yet managed with bloggers."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2015 @ 4:24pm

    So, instead of free speech nz gov is gonna cyber bully people!

    Typical

    Yes.......was joke.......although, funnier if there were'nt some truth to it

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2015 @ 9:30pm

    Ummm, isn't this why digital services such as Facebook and Twitter have a 'block' feature? We don't need freedom killing laws, use the block feature for fucks sake!

    New Zealand, I am disappoint. Consider yourself blocked.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Jul 2015 @ 4:07am

    I would hope—and I know it was pushed by certain members of the blogging society at the select committee—that the line maintained by media, true media, is maintained.


    So blogs must be false media then?

    WTF is "true" media even supposed to mean? He should have said what he meant: "licensed"/"syndicated"/"traditional" media.

    Also media does not have to be syndicated or licensed to be true.

    In fact I'd argue that many blogs (which are not bound to any particular political agenda) can be more representative of "true" media than most licensed, syndicated, curated media will ever be.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 8 Jul 2015 @ 2:38am

      Excerpt from the unofficial official government dictionary

      'True media': Media that is controlled by, either through direct ownership or indirect methods, the government, and can be trusted to never print something that would embarrass or otherwise undermine the power and authority of the government, excepting in cases where it is necessary to present a minor scandal in order to distract people from a major one.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Jul 2015 @ 7:38am

    "Should"

    What does "should" mean in this legislation? According to RFC 2118 it means "that there may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore a particular item, but the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed before choosing a different course."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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