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Mandating politeness

I critiqued the Harmful Digital Communications Bill in today’s NZ Herald. The copy isn’t online yet, as best I can tell, but here’s an excerpt. Enjoy!

While all but the most tragic of politics aficionados watched New Zealand grind through a cliffhanger semi-final win against South Africa rather than watching Parliament TV, the Harmful Digital Communications Bill passed its second reading.

The Bill criminalises a lot of activities that rightly draw strong public condemnation. Intimate videos should not be further distributed without the consent of those parties there featured. But the Bill goes a bit beyond that.

The scope of the bill is obvious in its ten guiding principles. Principle 3 says that digital communications should not be grossly offensive. Principle 4 adds that they should not be indecent or obscene. Principle 10 says that digital communications should not denigrate individuals on the basis of their colour, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

While all of those can be excellent principles guiding one’s daily interactions and helping in avoiding being a jerk, should Parliament really be legislating that everyone be nice to everybody else?

On the same day that New Zealand passed the Harmful Digital Communications Act through second reading, India’s Supreme Court struck down section 66A of their Information & Technology Act which similarly banned sending offensive messages.

One Indian newspaper reported widespread popular opposition to the clause: the subjectivity in defining offensiveness had allowed police to arrest people for objectionable political satire and commentary on local politicians.

It would be unlikely that politicians here could prove that tone-deaf. But it would be somewhat ironic that a bill justified in part by the online harassment of the Roastbusters’ victims could criminalise online harassment of the police officers who failed to pursue the Roastbusters case.

The best we can say about much of this law is that it is unlikely to be enforced. But should Parliament really be in the business of passing legislation that we hope is not really taken seriously?

Update: the piece is now online here.

About Eric Crampton (87 Articles)
I'm Head of Research with the New Zealand Initiative.

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