Review of the “wild west” internet

The Minister of Justice, Simon Power, has announced a review into the “wild west” of the internet:

It’s a bit of a Wild West out there in cyberspace at the moment, because bloggers and online publishers are not subject to any form of regulation or professional or ethical standards.

The idea of some sort of a review of how our laws “intersect” with the internet has been kicking around for a while now, but the above statement by the Minister sets a rather draconian and disconcerting tone for the review. Regulation of bloggers? Bloggers and ethics?! As for the suggestion (via the term “Wild West”) that law doesn’t apply to the internet, well that is simply incorrect.

Fortunately, the Minister curbs his enthusiasm by saying that due to the “enormous scope of this whole issue”, the review will focus on:

  • How to define ‘news media’ for the purposes of the law.
  • Whether and to what extent the jurisdiction of the Broadcasting Standards Authority and/or the Press Council should be extended to cover currently unregulated news media, and if so what legislative changes would be required to achieve this.
  • Whether existing criminal and civil remedies for wrongs such as defamation, harassment, breach of confidence, and privacy are effective in the new media environment, and if not whether alternative remedies are available.

Of these, it is really only the third issue that is likely to have any substance. The first two points may address relatively small issues (such as extending BSA jurisdiction to online transmission of broadcast content). Beyond that, it will show how difficult – and, hopefully, undesirable – it is to “regulate” the internet much beyond where it is now. There is no prospect of any “regulation” of bloggers beyond existing laws, or of subjecting private comment to professional bodies such as the Press Council (which is not even a statutory organisation, and has no official powers).

The third issue will be where the most interest lies. There is no question that criminal and civil remedies do extend to the internet, as recent incidents such as the prosecution of a blogger for breaching a name suppression order demonstrate. But there is scope for further consideration of some of these issues.

Take harassment for example. I recently heard from two separate individuals who are the targets (allegedly) of vicious online smearing and bullying, mainly on Facebook. One of them told me that it was a deliberate campaign to wreck her marriage, and was causing enormous personal distress. Now what can be done about that? In many cases, the answer is very little. The review may be an opportunity to brainstorm and see if some solution or framework can be arrived at to allow genuine victims to get some assistance. Draconian regulation is not the answer, nor is possible, but there may be some sensible steps that can be taken.

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