Harmful Digital Communications Bill passes second reading

Wed 15 Apr 2015

A Bill which aims to prevent and reduce the harm caused by cyberbullying and harassment passed its second reading in Parliament on 24 March 2015. The ...

A Bill which aims to prevent and reduce the harm caused by cyberbullying and harassment passed its second reading in Parliament on 24 March 2015.

The Harmful Digital Communications Bill introduces measures to address damaging online communications, provide remedies and hold perpetrators to account.

Specifically the Bill will:

  • "Establish a complaint handling agency to resolve the vast bulk of complaints about harmful digital communications
  • Allow people to take serious complaints to the District Court, which could issue remedies, such as take-down orders and cease-and-desist notices
  • Allow people to easily and quickly request the removal of harmful content, while also clarifying the liability of online content hosts (called a 'safe harbour' provision)
  • Make it an offence to send messages and post material online that are intended to cause harm
  • Create a new offence of incitement to commit suicide, in situations where the person does not attempt to take their own life."

Justice Minister Amy Adams said the recent 'Roast Busters' case highlighted the need for the legislation. She said "This Bill has the potential to stop cyberbullies and reduce the devastating impact their actions can have. Importantly, our proposals also empower victims, by providing a quick, low-cost and effective way to right the wrongs done to them."

The Justice and Electoral Select Committee has considered the Bill. It recommended it be passed with amendments, the following of which were accepted:

  • "A modified safe harbour provision, to better balance removal requests with freedom of expression rights
  • Increased maximum penalties for two offences
  • A new provision allowing the District Court to order an Internet Protocol Address Provider (IPAP) to release the identity of an anonymous communicator to the court."

The Labour Party's minority position stated that it supported the intent of the Bill of mitigating the harm to individuals caused by electronic communications and providingvictims with a quick and effective means of redress. However it remained "concerned at the unnecessarily fast passage of this bill through the select committee; the lack of wider views sought when faced with issues of fundamental importance such as the definition of harm; the impact of the new criminal sanctions on young people; the lack  of detail about the role of the Approved Agency and how those functions might be  delegated to another authority; and the lack of awareness of and representation by  younger people on the impact of a new online cyber-abuse law."

Labour's Clare Curran also said the Bill was punitive and would criminalise people without educating them first. She said if the Bill progressed to committee stage, Labour would work with the Government to make amendments then. Minister Adams said she was considering advice from officials on whether further minor amendments to the Bill were necessary.

Background information

The New Zealand Law Commission produced a Ministerial Briefing Paper in 2012, Harmful digital communications: The adequacy of the current sanctions and remedies.

Research and resources on online safety

The NSPCC has published an Online Abuse and Bullying Prevention Guide. The discussion guide was designed for professionals working with young people to help them understand what constitutes abusive behaviour online and the consequences of that behaviour. The guide focuses on eight online negative behaviours identified by young people including threatening behaviour, trolling, blackmail and revenge porn, cyberbullying, grooming online, fake profiles, hacking accounts and tagging photos with defamatory or negative comments.

Relevant research includes:

Citron, D. K., & Franks, M. A. (2014). Criminalizing revenge porn. Wake Forest Law Review, 49, 345.

Technology, teen dating violence and abuse, and bullying (Justice and Policy Center, Urban Institute, Washington, DC, 2013).

The Clearinghouse has also collated research and resources to support people experiencing digital stalking.


Opinion: Eric Crampton: Communications Bill aims to make everybody nice, NZ Herald, 09.04.2015

Opinion: A digital bill that's far too broad, NZ Herald, 07.04.2015

Māori Party support Harmful Digital Communications Bill, Māori Television, 25.05.2015

Anti-cyber bullying bill progresses, Stuff, 25.03.2015

Cyberbullies one step closer to being held to account, Media Release: Beehive, 25.03.2015

Fears cyberbullying law will criminalise children, Stuff, 24.03.2015

Cyber-bullying Bill Progresses, Scoop, 24.03.2015

Cyber-bullying Bill Debate Possible Again, Scoop, 24.03.2015

Image: Pixabay