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IN PHOTO: Undated file photo on Facebook privacy. Reuters/Stringer

In a significant step, New Zealand has criminalised Internet trolling involving harmful digital communications, which may be "truthful as well as false information, intimate visual recordings” such as nude or seminude pictures or video sharing without permission. Under the new law, any person found guilty of Internet trolls will face a sentence of minimum two years' in jail. The bill was passed by the New Zealand parliament with an overwhelming majority of 116 to five.

The Harmful Digital Communications Act will be effective from July. Besides, jail term, there will be a penalty for those convicted of “causing harm by posting digital communication." That will be NZ$50,000 fine for individuals, and if it is a business, the fine will be NZ $200,000. New Zealand also amended the Crimes Act so that any person who tells other persons to kill themselves will face three years in prison.

Cyber Bullying

The new cyber law seeks to address the harm inflicted by cyber-bullying and offers victims the means of effective redress, say the supporters of the new law. But critics fear the new anti-trolling law will imperil free speech in New Zealand and finish public interest journalism in the country. However, the urgency behind the bill stems from the public outcry that followed the horrific "Roast Busters” scandal, in which a group of teenage boys from Auckland posted their ‘adventures” on social media, after sexually assaulting many under-age girls.

Flaying the law, Greens MP Gareth Hughes said its intent sounds noble but its definition of “harm" would be damaging to journalism in the country. He said what is not an offence offline should not be an offence online also. Hughes criticised the fact that reporters are not exempted from the purview of the legislation. He pointed out a paradox created by the new law, which will constrain publishing reports online. For example, the story about a corrupt MP cannot be carried online whereas the same can be legally published in a newspaper, he noted.

Think of Children

During the debate, legislator Jacqui Dean acknowledged that there are concerns about the implications of the law, yet the MP asked fellow lawmakers to think about their children. "There have been many thoughtful contributions on this Harmful Digital Communications Bill. I do acknowledge that it is a legislative response that some view as impinging on freedom of speech and perhaps might be too heavy-handed. What I would say is that the protection of our young people in particular - their protection from cyber-bullying - is very important that I think this bill is a very good step, and I commend it to the House,” Dean said.

(For feedback/comments, contact the writer at k.kumar@ibtimes.com.au)