All eyes on New Zealand

The eyes of the world are on New Zealand as the Government's Bill to stop cyber bullying begins its progress through Parliament.

Justice Minister Judith Collins is in charge of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, which was introduced to the House on Tuesday and implements recommendations from the Law Commission's broader review of media regulation.

The Bill acknowledges ''modern technology has provided an outlet for a unique form of harassment with its own challenges'' and therefore covers communication such as emails, texts, blog sites, forums, and social media sites, and is designed to ''mitigate the harm caused to individuals by digital communications and to provide victims of harmful digital communications with a quick and efficient means of redress''.

The Bill seeks to create a civil enforcement regime to deal with harmful digital communications. Initial complaints would be made to an approved agency to investigate and attempt to resolve the issue. If that failed, an individual could apply to the District Court for civil orders that would require removal of the harmful material, that the defendant cease the harmful conduct, and that the identity of an anonymous author be released.

The Bill will also create criminal offences to deal with the most serious harmful digital communications, and amend existing legislation in light of technological advances.

Those offences would be failing to comply with an order of the court (punishable by fines up to $5000 for an individual or $20,000 for a body corporate), posting a harmful digital communication with the intention to cause harm (punishable by up to three months' imprisonment or fine up to $2000), and inciting a person to commit suicide (an addition to existing legislation which criminalises incitement to commit suicide where it has been attempted and would be punishable by up to three months' imprisonment).

While responsible news media consider the law, ethics, and issues of fairness, balance and harm before posting online content, the online medium is readily accessible to everyone, including those who seek to cause harm, and act criminally, and who can operate often anonymously and insidiously.

The online world is vast, fast-moving and ever-evolving, and it will sadly likely never be possible to eradicate all malicious content.

But the Bill will send the message - backed by substantial punishments - that the online world is not the unpatrolled Wild West it once was, that the rule of law applies, and that there are expectations of conduct for all users.

And it certainly goes some way to protecting the most vulnerable users, children and young people, many of whom spend considerable hours each day online and are easy targets from their peers and adults through content of a sexual, threatening or derogatory nature, which can have devastating effects.

It was heartening several weeks ago to highlight in this newspaper a group of Central Otago secondary school pupils leading the charge against cyber bullying in their community through the Central Otago Reap Sticks 'n' Stones Cyber Bullying Project, funded by the Ministry of Social Development.

But given this week's revelations of the ''Roast Busters'' Facebook page, set up by young men who boasted about their sexual conquests of underage girls whom they had stupefied with alcohol, new laws with real teeth to deal swiftly with harmful digital communications and publications cannot come soon enough to protect vulnerable young people in particular. (Whether the police dealt appropriately with matters surrounding this particular matter is questionable and another topic entirely.)

Criminal behaviour can of course be dealt with under other legislation, but having the power to immediately remove harmful content as well as identify and punish perpetrators is important and long overdue in a medium which has the potential to cause great damage.

Ms Collins says few countries have similar laws and others will be watching progress of the ''groundbreaking'' legislation. It is certainly welcome to see New Zealand leading the way.

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