Vigilance on web civil liberties needed



The Law Commission continued its review of new media this week with their release of the report The News Media Meets ‘New Media’: Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age. Commissioned by Judith Collins, the report continues the government’s investigations into how the new media environment needs to be legislated in New Zealand.


The backdrop of its release has been read against the Leveson Inquiry in the UK, which in its examination of hacking scandals looked for sometime to extend press regulations to bloggers (thus opening up political bloggers to potential libel cases and detracting from freedom of speech) and the Finkelston Inquiry. This has meant that the reception of the Law Commission’s recommendations to establish one single regulatory body and self-regulates has been received as largely positive.  Some commentators have drawn attention to the way that the Law Commission intends to incentivize this, by only allocating special privileges to the media or bloggers that join. This may have the effect of meaning that it is only people who make money off the web have the financial ability to join, therefore excluding the smaller players.


The report argues that new media and traditional media boundaries are becoming fluid in a way that makes it difficult to uphold the law. The Law Commission overestimate the blend between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media in both reports, going so far to say that it is not uncommon for broadcasters to follow message boards on TradeMe in the cyberbullying report. As convergence guru Henry Jenkins argues in his work Convergence Culture: when old and new media collide (2006), the premise that the new media forms will completely replace older models of broadcasting is a utopian ideal that guided earlier discussions of the net and is largely outdated now.  What we are seeing is new partnerships where old and new media exist in symbiosis. The idea that newspapers will completely become redundant then, is not entirely true, while they are currently challenged with adapting to the drop in advertising revenue due to declining print circulation, it is likely that there will be an ongoing demand for the kind of regular news that organized broadcasters provide (and bloggers are dependent on).


However, the most interesting part of the report lurking in the Law Commission’s recommendations is that the current report should be read alongside their August 2012 Harmful Digital Communications report into cyberbullying in terms of the legal extensions into the online environment.  The report into cyberbullying is focused on the concerns of teens and other individuals growing up in the digital environment, and how people are exposed to increased harassment that they are unable to counter.  Online harassment is a serious issue in many countries, and the report argues for an emphasis on education around digital footprints, setting privacy settings, and a general emphasis on civil civic engagement online. But it is here where the debate gets interesting and a lot more murky.

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In the previous report, the Law Commission recommends that there is up to a $2000 fine for bloggers and vexatious comments on blogs. While this might sound reasonable for extreme cases, the report argues that there needs to be a great deal of education in the blogging community as to what constitutes offence, making it seem like this barrel of laws could be open to future abuse. They also signal Twitter out as a potential area for further legislation (signaling that perhaps they haven’t seen the daily banter of politicians on Twitter – the debate can get quite fierce). The two reports together signal problems for journalists who tweet, as individual comments could open up their organizations to potential fines. The fines on blogging and on commenters on blogs would exist outside of the new media organization being set up. The Commission wants a Communications Commission set up, that processes complaints quickly, but where the accused has no right to protest the decision or represent themselves, a structure which signals that it could potentially be up for abuse.  The previous report also signals a desire to legislate beyond the regulatory convergence that has largely dictated the internet, and a desire to eventually submit Facebook and Google to state laws. While in some cases state pressure has been positive on these organizations, such as Germany’s concerns around privacy on Facebook, in others it has led to the shutting down of political freedom (for example Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, London’s legislation to shut down the net after the riots, and so on). While New Zealand is unlikely to come down this hard on people, it is really important to ensure that we do not open up the internet for cases that could potentially shut down internet freedom and as TechLiberty highlight, this particular series of reports could be potentially open to abuse.



  1. The link to “Harmful Digital Communications” resuilts in a ‘Page cannot be Found’. (No doubt taken down because it was ‘harmful’ to someone… )


  2. “What we are seeing is new partnerships where old and new media exist in symbiosis.”

    New media (largely new “social media”) will not replace the traditional media, as few bloggers will have the resources to gather and publish news-reports on the many areas of interests covered by television, radio and print media (with their increased use of online sites also). Yes, they will rather complement each other.

    I am very concerned about anything being discussed and proposed at present, and I am observing these discussions with great interest.

    What we have now is a media landscape dominated by commercial interests, and only some blog-sites do still offer a bit of a balance to the mainstream, very generally focused, not much analysing or even sufficiently critical, investigative reporting anymore.

    Public media have been shrinking, faced cost cutting, independent media is hard to find, and much is advertising and ratings driven. Even TVNZ must be seen as part of the “commercial” operations now.

    Legislative control and over-sight and incentivised voluntary membership of a standards enforcing board, must give fair consideration to non-commercial operators, so not to leave “the market” solely to the cash generating media organisations.

    I would not put much trust into this government taking up the more sensible proposals by the Law Commission, as they tend to cherry pick what suits them and “their” preferred media.

    As for “vexatious” comments, the standards must not be set too tightly, as then the rules could stifle dissent and debate, which may by some be considered “vexatious”, but may rather be of the “more outspoken” types.

  3. One of the things this law will clamp down on is opinion and the expression of that opinion.

    The Internet has the potential to be the medium of exchange in genuinely participatory democracy. Dare I suggest that for the fist time since the heyday of Athenian democracy we have the means to bring about a direct democracy?

    It could be the end of puerile party politics, a consummation devoutly to be wished (by which I mean I hope and pray political parties go and get f–).

    That potential is what the Fat Cattists and their mates fear, of course. So much for ‘the only good citizen is an informed citizen.’

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