In recent years there has been a significant increase in online abuse particularly of vulnerable young people. A high profile example was the 2013 ‘Roast Busters’ case involving teenage boys bragging of sexual activities with girls. This article looks at what remedies are available when cyberbullying takes place.
Cyberbullying has become commonplace with dreadful consequences for the victims including depression and suicide.
In September 2015, a 24 year-old-man was arrested in Denmark after a joint investigation between New Zealand and Danish authorities. The man posted private photos of an Auckland schoolgirl on websites and subsequently hacked the computers of the girl’s family and school.
New legislation will help
The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 came into effect on 1 July 2015. It aims to deter and prevent harm from digital communication and to provide victims of harmful communication with a means of redress. The definition of ‘digital communication’ includes posting on the internet and social media sites, and phone communications such as texts.
It’s now an offence to post a digital communication that causes harm to a victim, if the post is intended to cause harm and if an ordinary reasonable person in the victim’s shoes would have been harmed.
Since the Act came into force eight people have been charged and, to date, three have been convicted. The most recent conviction involved a Christchurch man sending numerous threatening images and messages to his former boss.
The Act provides limited protection from liability to websites (such as Facebook) that might host harmful content. However, the host must comply with certain procedures. It must be easy for users to make complaints. Any complaint must be forwarded to the author of the post and, unless the author objects, in most cases the post must be removed within 48 hours of the complaint.
The balance of the Act (coming into force on a date to be decided prior to 2 July 2017) contains additional remedies for victims. The legislation will establish a statutory agency to receive and investigate complaints about harmful digital communications.
If the agency cannot negotiate the removal of a post or has not deterred someone from posting on websites, the District Court will have the power to make various orders including that specific content be removed, that conduct be stopped, or that a correction, apology or right of reply be published.
These orders can be made against the original poster as well as the website host. If necessary, the court can order that the identity of an anonymous author be revealed to the court. This is aimed to stop those people, commonly known as ‘trolls’, who hide behind the internet to hurl abuse at others safe in the knowledge that no one knows who they are.
Commentators acknowledge the Act addresses an important and real need – protecting the vulnerable and limiting harmful behaviour. Critics fear unjustified complaints could be used to unfairly target a person, publication or field of discussion and limit freedom of speech.
Most people would agree that the law needed to address issues with cyberbullying. Time will tell whether the changes are effective.