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Is the bullying problem really in cyberspace?

Stephen Bell | Oct. 16, 2012
The Law Commission was already putting together its thoughts on the impact of "new" media for the government's attention, when Justice Minister Judith Collins asked it to fast-track the part of the report dealing with "harmful digital communication".

And to insist, as the likes of Facebook and Google are starting to, that every comment should be traceable to a real name will risk inhibiting whistleblowers - fair critics of powerful people who would wreak vengeance on a named source. Anonymity has its positive uses.

The draft Bill provides for an order to force the provider of a digital service to disclose the identity of the perpetrator -- even at the point when the harm is only alleged. Being unwilling -- or unable -- to comply puts the provider in the way of a $5000 fine.

As has been demonstrated repeatedly in the worlds of copyright and censorship, people doing something nasty are adept at hiding their traces. To threaten to reveal the source of a harmful rumour will simply drive them to more secure anonymity.

To hold the service provider liable and insist they provide information that may be very difficult to trace is to burden an innocent party.

No doubt if harm is convincingly alleged most providers will remove an offending comment promptly as far as they are able; but a subject of truthful, if embarrassing, information could be pretending distress so as to ensure the material's removal. That way lies censorship and chilling of speech.

In sum, blaming the intermediary and attacking anonymity could have more negative effects than positive. This proposal needs more thought.


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