Speeches

Harmful Digital Communications Bill - Third Reading Speech

Friday, June 26, 2015 - 12:23
Justice

Mr Speaker, I move, That the Harmful Digital Communications Bill be now read a third time.

Cyberbullying is a real and growing problem.

It’s not a minor issue confined to a small group of people. One-in-five New Zealanders aged 13-30 years have experienced harmful communications on the internet.

We need to do something to stem these new and insidious threats.

This Bill will help stop cyberbullies and reduce the devastating impact their actions can have by simplifying the process for getting abusive material off the internet in a quick and proportionate way.

These proposals empower victims, by providing a quick, low-cost and effective way to right the wrongs done to them.

A real and growing threat

We live in the digital age of the internet – where smartphones outnumber people and every day we spend around 6 hours connected at home or on the go.

Social media has fast become one of our top sources of information, and a single post or tweet can be shared around the world thousands of times and across millions of screens within seconds.

To give you an idea of the speed and reach of the internet, the infamous Ellen Degeneres' multi-celebrity selfie at the 2014 Oscars was seen by 32.8 million people on Twitter in the first 12 hours.

These digital technologies allow New Zealanders to connect and interact in new, exciting ways.

On the whole, they present us with a tremendous opportunity to share ideas, knowledge and experiences with other people anywhere in the world.

However, there’s a dark and sinister side to the internet.

Some people use communications technology such as emails, text messaging and social media to intimidate others, spread damaging or degrading rumours, and publish invasive and intimate photographs.

And these are rapidly, cheaply, and anonymously disseminated to huge audiences.

This must stop.

Whether it’s in the schoolyard, the workplace or at home, bullying anywhere is intolerable.

But the reality is that the digital age has allowed the reach and impact of bullying to increase dramatically.

Harmful digital communications are not confined to one place or time – they can spread anywhere, anytime and to any audience. And they can last forever.

This means victims are forced to re-live the attack again and again, leading to an almost endless cycle of re-victimisation.

Digital communications have unique characteristics and require a targeted response. This is why we’re introducing specific legislation to deal with cyberbullying.

There are heart-breaking stories around New Zealand of young Kiwis, in particular, making tragic choices in the wake of severe cyberbullying.

In 2009, Rotorua schoolgirl Hayley Ann Fenton took her own life after receiving what the coroner described as “extraordinarily abusive” text messages.

Stephanie Garrett was also 15 years old when she died in Palmerston North in 2013, having been bullied online in the days leading up to her death.

These deaths were a tragedy and completely preventable.

A recent study of 18,000 children from years 5 to 13 found that 31 per cent believed cyberbullying was a problem at their school.

Last year, Barnados in Canterbury saw a 70 per cent increase in calls to the 0800 What's Up helpline where children were in "imminent harm", with cyberbullying cited as behind many of the calls.

Across Parliament, we can all agree that there is real, significant harm that can be caused through digital means.

It’s a new threat, and a very real and very serious threat, that Parliament has to respond to.

I want to applaud those parties here today who support this legislation.

I want to commend the constructive way in which parties in this House have dealt with me on this Bill.

New Zealanders can feel assured that their Parliament has nutted out the ins-and-outs of this Bill to the fullest extent, and it’s wide-support showcases how Parliament can come together to work on important issues.

Details of the Bill

The Government tasked the Law Commission to take a comprehensive look at this issue.

Its findings confirmed concerns held by New Zealanders that efforts to remove abusive material from the internet, under existing laws, is often difficult, drawn out and costly, and there are limited sanctions available to aid such efforts and to hold offenders to account.

So Parliament decided to act.

This legislation tackles cyberbullying head on.

It sends a clear message to cyber bullies and it puts on notice anyone wanting to use the internet to spread abhorrent abuse or material online you’re on notice.

It will deter, prevent and mitigate harm caused to individuals and it simplifies the process for getting abusive material off the internet, quickly and effectively, while respecting free speech rights.

To achieve this purpose, this legislation introduces several important measures.

Creating new offences

Firstly, it creates new criminal offences to deal with the most serious harmful digital communications.

It makes it an offence to send messages and post material online that deliberately cause serious emotional distress – punishable by up to two years imprisonment or a maximum fine of $50,000 for individuals, and a fine of up to $200,000 for companies.

It also creates a new offence of incitement to commit suicide, which would apply in situations where the person does not attempt to take their own life.

If convicted, an offender may be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

The new offence recognises the distress caused by provoking others to commit suicide, and highlights that the consequences of this kind of harassment are too serious to ignore.

These new offences send a strong, clear message that serious and harmful instances of online bullying and harassment are criminal behaviour and, where appropriate, those who torment others will be prosecuted.

Approved Agency

During the passage of this Bill, significant attention has been given to the criminal aspects of this legislation. But, the vast majority of measures are focused on making sure victims can quickly and effectively seek help.

These measures seek to empower individuals and change online behaviour.

Under this legislation, an Approved Agency will be appointed to resolve complaints about harmful digital communications. 

The Agency will provide timely and effective assistance for victims. 

It will use informal means, such as negotiation, mediation and persuasion.

The Approved Agency will have a statutory function of raising awareness and educating the public, including providing information to schools to help educate students and upskill teachers.

It will also provide online safety advice and education to the general public and will collaborate with service providers and agencies – both here and overseas – to better achieve the purposes of the legislation.

Education is certainly part of the solution, but victims of cyberbullying also need mechanisms to remove abusive material and prevent its spread, and the Bill provides proportionate and effective remedies.

For thorny complaints, the legislation gives the District Court new powers which will provide a speedy, efficient and relatively cheap legal avenue for dealing with serious or repeated harmful digital communications.

The court will be able to order a broad range of remedies, including ordering the taking-down of the material, ordering that a correction or apology be issued, or ordering the release of the identity of the source of an anonymous communication.

Safe harbour

Another core measure is the introduction of a ‘safe harbour’ which provides online content hosts with a simple, optional process for handling complaints.

Where followed, this allows people to easily and quickly request the removal of harmful and unlawful content posted by others, and for hosts to avoid liability for that content.

The safe harbour is based on personal responsibility and fairness – the author or creator of allegedly harmful or unlawful content should be responsible for that content and be given an opportunity to respond to allegations.   

Implementation

Once the Bill is enacted, different measures will come into force at different times.

The new criminal offences and the safe harbour provision will take effect immediately, while the Approved Agency and the District Court orders will be up and running within two years of enactment.

Freedoms of Speech and Expression

Mr Speaker, concerns that the Harmful Digital Communications Bill will limit the rights to speech or expression or prevent genuine media reporting are unfounded.

Much has been made of the potential impact of this legislation on the freedom of speech. It’s worth remembering from the outset that the freedoms we enjoy are not absolute.

You can’t scream ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.

Nor should you be allowed to abuse someone online, incite people to kill themselves on social media, or share revenge porn with the world, and claim that as an absolute right.

They can and should be subject to reasonable limits where demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

While seeking to prevent and reduce harm to individuals, the Harmful Digital Communications Bill takes great care to safeguard the freedom of expression.

For example, before a court can make a take-down order, it must take into account factors such as the public interest and the truth of the statement. The court must also act consistently with the rights and freedoms contained in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

This includes acting consistently with the freedom of expression. 

Conclusion

Mr Speaker, this Bill is world-leading legislation.

This Bill will give victims of cyberbullying quick and practical measures to stop and take down abusive material.

The purpose of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill is to deter, prevent and mitigate harm caused to individuals and it simplifies the process for getting abusive material off the internet, quickly and effectively, while respecting free speech rights.

I welcome the bipartisanship the House has displayed in supporting this legislation, and I commend it to the House.