New Zealand Law Society - Netsafe starts new role dealing with online harassment

Netsafe starts new role dealing with online harassment

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Netsafe has started its role as the approved agency under the Harmful Digital Communications Act.

The internet safety group’s role includes advising people on the steps they can take to resolve a problem, investigating and trying to resolve complaints where digital communications have caused harm, and providing education and advice about online safety and conduct. Netsafe can liaise with website hosts, internet service providers and other internet intermediaries and ask them to either take down or moderate offending posts. It is also operating a free, seven-day-a-week telephone helpline for victims of cyberbullying and online harassment.

What does the Act set out to do?

The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 sets out to “deter, prevent and mitigate harm caused to individuals by digital communications and provide victims of harmful digital communications with a quick and efficient means of redress”.

The Act lays out 10 communications principles that define the criteria of what makes a digital communication harmful. It says that a digital communication should not disclose sensitive personal facts about an individual; should not be threatening, intimidating or menacing; should not be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the position of the affected individual; should not be indecent or obscene, should not harass an individual, should not make a false allegation; should not contain a matter that is published in breach of confidence should not incite or encourage anyone to send a message to an individual for the purpose of causing harm to the individual; should not incite or encourage an individual to commit suicide and should not denigrate an individual because of colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

Netsafe can’t take action simply because one of these principles has been breached, the communication must also have caused, or be likely to cause, serious emotional distress.

What are harmful digital communications?

Netsafe says harmful digital communications can take many forms. “Whether it is an email with offensive content, or a post on a social media site that attempts to spread rumours or lies about an individual, the common theme that runs through these examples is that they are intended to harm someone.” Digital communications can include emails, texts and pictures, website content, blog posts, comments, online forums or chatrooms, social networks or social media sites, and phone-based apps.

What role does the District Court play?

If Netsafe is unable to resolve a complaint, it can be considered by the District Court. “In some cases Netsafe won’t be able to encourage the removal of harmful content, at which point police, the public and schools can apply through the District Court’s new civil process to deal with serious or repeated harmful digital communications,” says Justice Minister Amy Adams.

Parents and school principals can apply to the District Court on behalf of children under their care. Police can apply to the court when a communication threatens a person’s safety and the chief coroner can apply to the court for a take-down order about material relating to suicide if publication is prohibited by the Coroners Act 2006.

What action can the District Court take when making civil orders?

According to Netsafe, remedies the court can order include: orders to take down the material – these orders can be issued to either the perpetrator, a website host or any other relevant internet intermediary; cease-and-desist orders; order to publish a correction, an apology or to give the complainant a right of reply; orders to identify the source of an anonymous communication; and ordering name suppression for any parties.