LAW COMMISSION WELCOMES HARMFUL DIGITAL COMMUNCATIONS BILL
The Law Commission welcomes the introduction of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill in Parliament today by the Justice Minister Judith Collins.
The Bill originates from a 2012 Law Commission briefing for the Minister on harmful digital communications. The briefing attached a draft bill, much of which has been carried forward to the Bill introduced in Parliament today.
Law Commission President Sir Grant Hammond said it was timely for Parliament to consider the issue of harmful digital communication.
“In May 2012, Minister Collins asked us to fast-track this aspect of our broader review of media regulation in response to growing community concern about the harm resulting from the misuse of new communication technologies.
“Current events entirely vindicate the Minister’s decision to take action to address these harms and we are gratified that the bulk of our recommendations in this area are being progressed by the Government.”
The Law Commission recommended a new criminal offence that would apply to anyone over the age of 14 who posted or distributed material that caused serious emotional distress or humiliation to another person. Under the Bill, anyone who posts such harmful content – including distributing intimate images or videos without the consent of the subject – would commit an offence punishable by a $2,000 fine or, in serious cases, up to three months’ imprisonment.
Sir Grant said the new offence provision was specifically designed to address the emotional distress that can be caused when a person posts or distributes intimate images of another without their consent, even though they may have consented to, participated in or been aware of the creation of the material in its original context.
Often, however, the victim’s priority is to have the offending content taken down and sometimes also to unmask the person or persons responsible for its distribution.
“For young people it can be enormously distressing to find themselves powerless to take effective action to end or limit the impact of such behaviour. In such cases it is crucial that young people have recourse to accessible and effective alternative forums. It is also vital for parents and teachers to have a set of tools available to assist when they are called on.”
The Commission recommended establishing a two-tier civil enforcement regime designed to provide all citizens harmed by material posted online or distributed electronically with quick and cheap access to a range of remedies, including takedown orders and orders that would lead to the identification of anonymous offenders.
The Bill creates a role for an approved agency, such as NetSafe, that would be responsible for attempting to resolve complaints involving harmful digital communications, including instances of cyber bullying, and referring serious, unresolved cases on to the District Court. Court orders available include takedowns and cease and desist orders.
Anyone who failed to comply with an order made by the District Court under the new regime could be prosecuted and face a fine up to $20,000.
The Bill contains 10 communication principles, derived from a range of legal sources, to guide the exercise of powers under the legislation. The Law Commission also hopes that these principles will double as guidance for educators, parents and young people.
Another Bill before Parliament, the Objectionable Publications and Indecency Legislation Bill, would strengthen the current prohibitions on publishing objectionable and indecent material online, particularly where children are involved.
The combined effect of the Bills now before the House would create an expanded range of measures to combat digital harms occurring in the community, particularly those that impact young people.