Gareth Hughes

Should it be a cyber-bullying offence to be offensive?

by Gareth Hughes

I welcome the Law Commission’s cyber-bullying report which contains recommendations for reducing harm. As anyone who has been through it knows, bullying is a horrible experience and in New Zealand we have had some tragic examples leading to suicides.

It’s important that we discuss the problem and come up with solutions that work. The Law Commission’s recommendations include:

  • Creating a new offence targeting digital communication that is grossly offensive or indecent, obscene or menacing, and which causes harm.
  • Amending existing laws to ensure their provisions apply to digital communications. This would include making it an offence to incite a person to commit suicide, whether the person does or not.
  • Establishing a communications tribunal to provide speedy, efficient and cheap access to remedies such as take-down orders and cease-and-desist notices.

On the whole I think the Commission’s recommendations are sound and are a case of extending relevant current laws into the cyber-realm.

However there could be potential problems - particularly with the threshold for an offence. It would be an offence to use a communications device to send a message that causes harm, which can be defined as ‘substantial emotional distress’.

The Commission lists some guidelines but I’d like to see a bit more thinking done here to differentiate between personal abuse and attack, and ideas which are challenging and those which may be distressing. One only needs look at the Pussy Riot trial in Russia where political speech is being silenced under charges that allege the young women activists were ‘offensive.’

Published in Justice & Democracy | Society & Culture by Gareth Hughes on Wed, August 15th, 2012   

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