Fewer places on this planet are freer than New Zealand, I’m told. In fact, it’s currently ranked 3rd in the world behind Hong Kong and Singapore…no, you read that correctly.
But Frodo’s backyard has now put free speech on the chopping block in order to protect online denizens from any hurt feelings they might succumb to due to someone being mean on the internet, with the passage of the “Harmful Digital Communications Bill.”
In a 116-5 vote, the Kiwis have now passed a bill that essentially makes it a crime to speak ill of anyone on the internet.
“The Harmful Digital Communications Bill seeks to mitigate the harm caused to individuals by electronic communications and to provide victims of harmful digital communications with a quick and effective means of redress,” it says.
So what counts as harmful communication? The bill defines it as such:
- A disclosure of sensitive personal facts
- Threatening, intimidating, or menacing communication
- Grossly offensive communication
- False allegations
- Breaches of confidence
- Encouraging anyone to send a message to send a message to someone else to cause harm
- Causing or encouraging someone to commit suicide
- Being racist, sexist, bigoted, phobic, ableist, etc.
What’s just as worrying about this Big Brother-esque bill itself is how broad the rules are. “Grossly offensive communication” has no specificity to it. “Menacing communication” can mean any number of things depending on who you talk to, and racism and sexism are proven to have varying degrees of offensiveness depending on where the racism or sexism is coming from, or going to.
The rules change from source to source and recipient to recipient. Just ask “anti-online abuse activist” and top tier bully, Randi Harper.
This didn’t escape the lawmakers either as it even says in the bill: “In determining whether a post would cause harm, the court may take into account any factors it considers relevant, including (a) the extremity of the language used; (b) age and characteristics of the victim.”
So what kind of action will the New Zealand government take?
According to the bill, reports will be handed over to a government organization – one that they will create in the future – that handles online abuse. Yes, an entire bureaucracy to handle mean comments on websites.
This government agency will receive the complaints, investigate them, then use mediation or “persuasion (as appropriate)” to resolve the problem, which doesn’t sound like 1920s Chicago mafia talk at all.
In the event that this agency cannot resolve the matter, then it goes to court where the court may force the offending party to:
- Take down or disable material
- Order that the defendant stop communication with the complainant
- Order that a right of reply be given
- Order that a correction be published
- Order that an apology be published
- Order that a correction be published
- Order that the identity of an anonymous author be released to the court
Failing to comply with any of this could result in “imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding $5,000.”
In other words, you can be thrown in jail for someone taking offense to what you said on the internet, and the sentences go up the more “harm” you cause.
The law doesn’t stop at individuals either, as websites that host the offensive material are themselves liable, and may be subject to up to $20,000 in fines if they do not force the offender to remove the offending material, or the host doesn’t remove it themselves within 48 hours.
We’re entering a world where hurt feelings rule the day with legal force. Speaking your mind may get you on the bad side of the wrong person, and soon you’ll find yourself being ordered to take it back and apologize… or else.
It might not even matter if your intent wasn’t remotely harmful, or even just lightheartedly funny. If it hurt feelings, it’s going to hurt you. In an age of “microaggressions” and self-proclaimed victimhood, New Zealand may find itself a little less Shire and a little more Mordor.
My heart goes out to New Zealanders, who soon will only be able to practice free speech behind a closed door, under a blanket, with the radio on.
Hailing from Austin, Texas, Brandon Morse has been writing about politics and culture across many websites for the last six years, with a heavy emphasis on anti-authoritarianism. Aside from writing articles, he is also known for voice acting and authoring scripts. He is an avid gamer, dog person, and has a bad habit of making vague references to things no one has heard about or seen. Follow him at @TheBrandonMorse on Twitter.
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