New Zealand makes internet 'trolling' illegal - critics say it is a threat to free speech

New Zealand makes internet 'trolling' illegal

Supporters believe it will help mitigate the harm caused by cyber-bulling but critics say it is a threat to free speech

By Flynn Murphy, Sydney

10:20AM BST 08 Jul 2015

Internet trolls face up to two years' jail in New Zealand under a controversial new law which bans “harmful digital communications”.

And under a parallel amendment to New Zealand's Crimes Act, a person who tells another to kill themselves faces up to three years in prison.

The law will help mitigate the harm caused by cyber-bulling and give victims a quick and effective means of redress, supporters said.

But critics said the law harms free speech and its fine print could threaten public interest journalism in the country.

Under the Harmful Digital Communications Act in effect from this week, anyone convicted of “causing harm by posting digital communication” faces two years in prison and a $50,000 (NZ) (£6,500) fine, while businesses face fines of up to $200,000 (NZ).

Harmful communications can include truthful as well as false information, and “intimate visual recordings” such as nude or seminude pictures or video shared without permission.

The bill was introduced after a public outcry over the horrific "Roast Busters” scandal, in which a group of teenage boys from Auckland was accused of sexually assaulting drunk, under age girls and boasting about the acts on social media.

But in an editorial, New Zealand’s Dominion Post said while the law's intentions were good, it went too far and could "pick up in its drift-net the sorts of noise and criticism that make for the talk of a free society”.

Noting it effectively bans online communications judged “indecent”, “false” or “used to harass an individual”, the Post asked if reports on political expense scandals, or cartoons that mock religious figures, may also be banned under the legislation.

The bill passed the New Zealand parliament with an overwhelming 116 to 5 majority.

Speaking against the bill, Greens MP Gareth Hughes said while its intent was noble, its definition of “harm" was “irresponsibly broad”, and said the law could damage journalism in the country.

Arguing what was not an offence offline should not be an offence online, Mr Hughes criticised the fact reporters were not exempt from the legislation, which he said may prevent them publishing online the same story about a corrupt MP which would be perfectly legal to publish in a newspaper.


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