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July 19, 2015 | by  | in News |
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Don’t be mean behind the screen

Kids, you can no longer call people names on Yik Yak, or any other electronic platform for that matter.

Parliament recently passed its Harmful Digital Communications Act, which will see laws against cyber-bullying take effect this month.

Under the legislation, an “approved agency” may investigate and police harmful electronic communications via email, text and social media.

Online antagonists now face a fine of up to $50,000, or even two years in jail, for posting or sending “harmful digital communication”—anything online that is likely to cause distress.

The Act also introduces the crime of inciting suicide, which is punishable by a jail term of up to three years.

Abuse against race, disability, sex, religion and sexual orientation is also covered under the legislation.

The Act was a response to the growing number of online bullying cases, such as the 2013 Roast Busters scandal.

The same year saw Facebook shut down the “Otago Uni leaked Snapchat” page that Otago University lecturer Dr. Lesley Procter at the time dubbed a “gross invasion of privacy”.

Objectionable pages such as “Rack Appreciation Society”, which saw the private nudes of Dunedin woman put on a public Facebook page, and “Skank Central ChCh Name and Shame” have only compounded the controversy surrounding online bullying, particularly amongst young people.

However, ACT leader David Seymour defied his rulers in the National Party and, along with four Green MPs, voted against the Bill in its third reading on the basis that it might curtail people’s freedom of speech.

“Our rights are being traded away in this Bill,” Seymour said.

Other concerns were raised with the law’s use of terms like “indecent” and “false”, with some speculating that material used “to harass an individual” could be interpreted too broadly.

VUWSA Welfare Vice President Madeleine Ashton-Martyn supported the Act in principle, but also questioned its use of language.

“These issues are just so new that the easiest way to address them appears to be knee-jerk reactions in an attempt to regulate online behaviour, without having the fuller picture to be able to do this effectively,” Ashton-Martyn said.

The University told Salient it does receive complaints about students posting offensive imagery and threats online from time to time.

Student Interest and Dispute Resolution Advisor Jackie Anderson said students could only be reprimanded under the Student Conduct Statute for such behaviour if it occurred within the University precincts (or Halls of Residence), occurred in the context of a University activity, or was related to the person’s status as a student of the University.

“[Cyberbullying] is an area the University takes seriously and we use all possible avenues to follow up on all incidents that are drawn to our attention,” Anderson said.

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