27 November, 2012
Speech notes to NetSafe NZ Conference 2012
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today – it’s great to here.
I’d like to start by acknowledging NetSafe NZ and the terrific work it does to promote confident, safe and responsible use of online technologies.
I’m sure you’ll agree that the way we use and interact online has changed markedly over the past 20, 10…even 5 years.
Our lives are increasingly intertwined with the digital world – and particularly so for young people. Today we are confronted with new challenges – new crimes, new offences and unexpected harms that law makers and society could not ever have envisaged. There is no precedent.
Cyber-bullying, for example, is one such issue. It’s an issue I take very seriously and it’s something that this Government has made a priority.
Bullying has long been a problem, but its reach and impact has increased considerably in the digital age.
Bullying is no longer confined to the classroom or playground – bullies are targeting their victims by cellphone, instant messaging devices and social networking websites.
Like many parents, I find this extremely concerning.
We must not underestimate the devastating impact this new form of bullying has, particularly on young people – it is contributing to increased truancy, failure at school and serious emotional problems such as depression, self-harm and even suicide
So earlier this year, I asked the Law Commission to fast-track recommendations from its report into new media, looking specifically at harmful digital communications.
The Commission has made recommendations across three key areas –
- Changes to legislation to ensure our laws are fit for the digital age and able to respond to harmful digital behaviour.
- Creating a new civil enforcement regime to deal with harmful digital communications, and
- A toolbox of measures to help schools combat bullying in all forms, including cyber-bullying.
In response, the Government is considering changes to both civil and criminal law – including the creation of a new offence specifically tailored to combat harmful digital communications. Naturally, the prospect of creating such an offence raises concerns in quarters about people’s right to free speech.
Freedom of speech is an issue that the Commission gave a significant amount of consideration to and it’s one that the Government takes very seriously.
Free speech is something the majority of internet users hold dearly.
Recently there was a report in one of the newspapers about the hate-speech laws in the UK and somebody being able to be prosecuted for calling a New Zealander an Australian.
That's not something we want to see in New Zealand. I do think it's important we retain the right for people to be idiots and make fools of themselves.
The new offence should not be aimed at censorship, or speech which offends just because it is offensive. The proposed offence would only be for communications that are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or knowingly false as well as the most serious instances of intimate recordings taken with consent, but published without consent.
And that sets a very high bar.
Also, it would be up to the Courts to decide when the line has been crossed, and anyone found guilty can obviously appeal a decision, just as they can with any other kind of prosecution. This would help ensure people’s freedom of speech rights remain protected.
We’re also considering amending existing laws, including changing the law to make “incitement to suicide” a criminal offence, regardless of whether a person actually commits suicide, or attempts to.
I have publically stated that I believe there should be a specific offence of inciting suicide. The potential consequences of this kind of harassment are too serious to ignore.
Regarding updating existing laws, I believe the need for change is clear. Some of the laws that dictate offences and sanctions in the off-line world have not kept pace with technology – in some cases, the laws were written well before cellphones, instant messaging devices and social networking websites became common communication channels.
And because bullying is no longer confined to the classroom or playground, bullies can harass their targets 24 hours a day, seven days a week, wherever they go, and the trail of abuse can live on in cyberspace, following victims for years.
Once a comment is put into the cyber sphere, it is there forever.
The potential enduring legacy of harmful digital communications shows the need for a new civil enforcement regime. So we are considering changes to the Harassment Act and the Human Rights Act to keep up with changes in technology.
People need swift and sure access to an approved agency that has the authority to issue take-down notices and cease and desist orders. We want New Zealanders have easy access to the right tools and support to help them get harmful material removed.
We are considering the agency would be the first port of call for harmful digital communications between individuals. That agency would be responsible for mediating and investing complaints, liaising with website hosts and Internet Service Providers, liaising across government agencies such as the Police and Privacy Commissioner and providing a referral to the District Court if needed.
I’m sure you’ll agree that something needs to be done, because doing nothing is simply not an option.
Organisations such as NetSafe have a track record of successfully helping people in this area. It’s also good to see that some companies, such as Facebook, fronting up to this issue. Facebook has added an anti-bullying page to its Family Safety Center, with tools, tips and programmes to help people stand up for each other, and instructions on how to report a problem.
These sorts of initiatives – helping people to help themselves, and standing up for others is important. To successfully address cyber-bullying, we can’t just punish people. We also have to get bullies to think about the consequences of their actions, and give people who have been targeted the opportunity to ask for retractions or be given the right of reply.
Over the past decade or so some of our laws have not kept pace with the way New Zealanders are communicating – it makes sense to ensure existing provisions and protections apply in the digital age.
It’s important to provide the right tools to help victims of cyber-bullying and other forms of harmful digital communications.
It’s also important we send a clear message that we are taking this issue seriously and that there is hope for victims.
I look forward to working through the Law Commission’s recommendations with my Cabinet colleagues.
Thank you once again for the opportunity to speak to you today and I wish you all the best for a successful conference.