Rape threats, revenge porn, and relentless text-based abuse are all very real examples of how harmful online bullying can be. In a bid to curb that kind of behaviour, New Zealand has passed a law criminalising sending messages to people which are racist, sexist, critical of their religion, sexuality or disability.
Passed by an overwhelming majority in the country’s parliament last week, the law sets strict guidelines around what digital communications should and should not do.
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According to Engadget the rest for determining harm will be if a communication or set of communications is designed to cause “serious emotional distress”.
If someone is found guilty of breaking the law, they could face up to two years in prison.
There are however some who feel that the law is overly restrictive and could limit free speech.
As the extract below shows, the law uses language that is fairly general and could be interpreted as subjective:
A digital communication should not …
- disclose sensitive personal facts about another individual.
- be threatening, intimidating, or menacing.
- be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the position of the affected individual.
- be indecent or obscene.
- be used to harass an individual.
- make a false allegation.
- contain a matter that is published in breach of confidence.
- incite or encourage anyone to send a message to an individual for the purpose of causing harm to the individual.
- incite or encourage another individual to commit suicide.
- denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.
In order to support the law, the New Zealand will set up a new digital agency aimed at dealing with online bullying complaints. According to The Verge, the agency will work with claimants as well as with high-profile tech companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter to have any offending material removed.
The law also allows a number of steps to be taken before an arrest is made. First off, the service hosting the message can ask the user to remove it. Should they fail to do so within 48 hours, the company can remove the content themselves.
Some think that this could result in posts being removed without objection, curbing free speech.