New Zealand Criminalizes Cyberbullying to Help, Terrify Teens

The line between being a criminal and being a pubescent bully just got a bit thinner.

New Zealand’s parliament has approved a bill making online trolling illegal and punishable by fines or jail time. The Harmful Digital Communications Bill is designed to keep Internet people from threatening each other or using offensive language and has, predictably, raised the hackles of free speech advocates who claim it’s too broad in scope and chill online discourse.

Under the law, individuals can be fined up to $50,000 or sentenced to two years in jail for intentionally targeting anyone with racist, sexist, homophobic, differently able-ist, or religiously intolerant comments. If you read that sentence and wondered if the Kiwi penal system is ready to handle the online commentariat, you’re not even remotely alone.

Members of the NZ Labor Party have specifically voiced concern about the fact that the law’s open-ended wording could result in 14-year-old children getting a criminal record. This is particularly concerning given the high percentage of teenagers that are — in New Zealand and elsewhere — total assholes. The main catch is that social media sites are being given a window of 48 hours to remove offensive material. During that time, trolls will have safe harbor. But if sites fail to filter their content, their users could very well wind up clicking their way to the clink.

InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter has responded to the concerns about free speech by saying, “No legislation is perfect, and this is no exception.”

So that’s reassuring.