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New Zealand hopes to limit online bullying with new law

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New Zealand is hoping to make life harder for trolls. The parliament passed the Harmful Digital Communications Bill this past week, 116 to 5, and the law is expected to come into effect on Monday when it's given royal assent.

Under the new law, authorities can fine or imprison people who post "harmful digital communication." Specifically, the law seeks to target those who are attempting to be deliberately harmful with their language, but opponents are concerned that the law is overly broad. The text of the law is seen by many as general and subjective, and some fear it could limit free speech. It reads, in part:

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.

Those ten principles are designed to "guide the court and the Approved Agency" — which will enforce and monitor claims — "in assessing whether a digital communication has caused or is likely to cause someone harm." The law continues, "We consider that the principles would provide a useful reference to help infer a common set of values when assessing whether behaviour was acceptable."

Penalties include fines and up to two years' jail time

The "Approved Agency" will work with claimants and web service providers like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to have any offending material removed. After receiving a complaint, companies are supposed to ask the author to remove the offending material. If they don't within 48 hours, the company may simply remove it themselves. Some fear that companies will have little incentive to fight back against claims and will remove any possibly offensive material without objection — a move that could cut back on free speech.

The law also provides for punishments in the form of fines or jail time. Fines are up to NZ$50,000 (about $33,500) for individuals and NZ$200,000 (about $134,000) for corporations. In certain cases, people may be charged with up to two years in jail, or three for encouraging suicide. However, according to The New Zealand Herald, Justice Minister Amy Adams says that there will be a very high theshold for criminal prosecutions under the law.