Cyber bullying is now officially a crime in New Zealand. Going forward, causing serious emotional distress to another person via social media or messaging services like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp will carry significant penalties, including hefty fines or even jail time.
The Harmful Digital Communications Bill makes it so that most forms of bigotry like homophobia, sexism, racism, and ableism are punishable offenses, carrying with them jail sentences of up to three years.
Compelling a person to commit suicide is also now considered to be a crime that can lead to a perpetrator paying tens of thousands of dollars in mediation fines. The bill also calls for the creation of a new governmental body dedicated to the investigation of these specific crimes.
Only five members of the New Zealand parliament voted against the bill, mostly over concerns that young people would be put at risk of being unfairly penalized for immature behavior that wasn’t actually all that dangerous.
“Ordinary internet users, especially young people, could fall foul of the law’s criminal provisions for minor missteps,” ACT Party leader David Seymour insisted before the official vote. He described the law as an “[O]verly broad, unenforceable piece of legislation which countless ordinary people would inadvertently breach every day.”
Stuff, a popular New Zealand tabloid website, published a critical op-ed in opposition to the law arguing that it was an affront to free speech that would inevitably lead to people making unfounded claims that would harm the press.
“[Harm has been given] an alarmingly expansive definition by the statute. It is defined as anything that causes a complainant ‘serious emotional distress,’ a disconcertingly subjective notion.
“The new statute is a particular menace to mainstream broadcasters and publishers who run websites and who may become a target of a barrage of complaints.”
Laws prohibiting cyberbullying are a bit more complex here in the US, where legislation and repercussions vary from state to state. Currently, no federal law prohibits bullying specifically, though there are a number of different laws addressing broader forms of discrimination that can be interpreted as forms of bullying.