Harmful Digital Communications Bill could outlaw mainstream news sites

This stock photo of a man tapping on his computer already doesn’t feature a major New Zealand news website, but could this become the norm?

This stock photo of a man tapping on his computer already doesn’t feature a major New Zealand news website, but could this become the norm?

A bill set to be put before Parliament that would outlaw what it refers to as “harmful digital communications” is gathering support from both sides of the political spectrum, but some now fear that the ramifications could extend beyond cracking down on cyber-bullying, and necessitate the prosecution of mainstream news websites.

The Harmful Digital Communications Bill, which Justice Minister Judith Collins unveiled in April, would make it illegal to post material online that is “grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or knowingly false,” something that New Zealand Herald Editor Tim Murphy says covers “roughly 80% of what we do.”

“We appreciate the intent of this law, obviously,” explained Murphy, “particularly in light of recent revelations about the online activities of groups like the Roast Busters, and I think that’s why it’s gathering a lot of steam out there in the political sphere.

“But I also think we need to be careful before having these, sort of, knee-jerk legislative reactions. Because I think we’d all like to see less cyber-bullying, but I think we’d also like to see more news, particularly from the New Zealand Herald, and I think, you know, how much are they the same?”

Murphy also expressed concern about the provision of the law that would create a new offence of “incitement to commit suicide,” even in the event that the subject did not make an attempt on their own life, something he said was “just part of the news.”

“Well, you know those sorts of stories where some numpty says something stupid or offensive, and then we just give them a platform by repeating those comments ad nauseam?” asked Stuff.co.nz editor Mark Stevens. “Well, that does a lot of harm, really, when you think about it, because it just spreads sexist or racist messages – which helps no one – and whoever said those things is very personally demonised and dragged through the media for what is actually a wider cultural problem.

“So that’s probably incitement to suicide, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”

Justice Minister Collins said that the law was not intended to target major news outlets like Stuff and NZ Herald, but “would.”

If passed, the bill will set up a new civil enforcement agency that will specifically handle and consider complaints about The Civilian.