New Zealand has become the latest country to think bad online manners are amenable to legislation.
The country last night passed a controversial bill, the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, in the hope of stemming “cyber-bullying”.
The bill creates a regime under which digital communications causing “serious emotional distress” are subject to an escalating regime that starts as “negotiation, mediation or persuasion” but reaches up to creating the offences of not complying with an order, and “causing harm by posting digital communication”.
The most serious offenders would face two years in jail or a maximum fine of NZ$50,000 (US$33,900).
After it passed by a 116-to-5 vote in New Zealand's parliament, Gareth Hughes, one of the four Greens MPs to vote against the bill, said it was overly broad and “risks limiting our freedom of expression”.
NZ Labour said it was “wedged” by the NZ government: while some of the bill was “worthy of discussion” the law has “deeply worrying” elements.
The bill covers posts that are racist, sexist, or show religious intolerance, along with hassling people over disability or sexual orientation.
There's also a new offence of incitement to suicide (three years' jail).
The regime will be enforced by a yet-to-be-established agency that will make contact with publishers and social media platforms, and if it can't resolve a complaint, the agency will be able to escalate it to the district court.
There's a safe harbour provision for Web sites, and here's where the free speech arises. A platform like Facebook or Twitter (if they bothered) can opt into the safe harbour – but only if they agree to remove allegedly offending material either on-demand or within the bill's 48-hour grace period.
New Zealand's National Business Review notes complaints that it could criminalise children over the age of 14.
InternetNZ told the outlet that the bill should be kept under review: “the risk is of unintended consequences, or chosen balances of rights not working out in practice.” ®