On June 30th, New Zealand’s parliament passed a bill that attempts to outlaw cyber-bullying and other forms of inappropriate online behavior. The Harmful Digital Communications Bill’s maximum penalties include two years in jail or fines of up to $33,900 in American dollars. The law establishes a new agency to investigate damage caused by digital communications.
Digital bullying is no doubt a major problem. Victims can suffer severe trauma, with cases of suicide even resulting. But many question the bill’s implications for free speech. Gareth Hughes, an MP with New Zealand’s Green Party, states “Ultimately this bill is overbroad and risks limiting our freedom of expression”. The bill’s language applies to content causing “serious emotional distress”. This includes online posts that are “racist, sexist, or show religious intolerance, along with hassling people over disability or sexual orientation.”
Granting the government the ability to police the internet in any capacity chills speech, thus dealing a blow to free expression. Freedom of speech is meaningless if it only applies to polite or popular speech. This is especially true when legislatures attempt to criminalize speech vaguely defined as “causing emotional distress”. Laws cannot be based on the subjective emotions of the alleged victims. People can control their own actions, but not how others respond. No one has inalienable rights to be free from criticism or hurt feelings. Liability should be based on verifiable harm, and penalties should be geared solely towards compensating the victim. This is why civil liability and common law are preferable to broad, sweeping speech codes and criminal law statutes. Common law more appropriately with the nuances of each individual case and locale than do blanket criminal statutes.
One of the greatest features of the internet is its free discourse. Anything is up for critique or debate. The last thing we need is fickle government agents declaring perfectly valid exchanges on such things as religion or politics to be hate speech. New Zealand’s lawmakers also face the reality that the vast majority of the internet exists outside their jurisdiction and there is nothing they can do about content creators beyond their boundaries, much to their dismay.
While no one likes internet trolls and bullies, there are better ways to fight them. Platforms such as Facebook and YouTube allow users to report offensive content, which is then removed. This, however, is not always done to everyone’s satisfaction. Such reporting systems, though, will likely improve as awareness of cyber-bullying increases and there becomes more demand for combatting it. Reddit successfully uses a system of user-created codes to keep bad behavior in check. Parents can also educate their children on how to protect themselves online as well as how to show respect towards others online. And competitive companies will no doubt respond to increased demand for a safer and more civil online experience.
While bullying and other forms of bad behavior on the internet are real problems, calling on the state to be the bigger bully by fining and locking up offenders is not the answer. The ability of everyone to freely express themselves online is too valuable to risk compromising through heavy-handed government intervention. Furthermore, the implication that force and the threat of force are the best ways to solve problems only reinforces the bully-ish tendencies within our culture. Instead, let’s find voluntary means to solve this problem without criminalizing speech, creating new government agencies, and becoming bullies ourselves.