Harmful Digital Communications

The Harmful Digital Communications Act has taken a long time to come into force, but from today anyone who is experiencing online abuse, harassment and cyberbullying can report to the appointed agency, Netsafe, who will “receive, assess and investigate complaints”. What they will do to help targets of abuse and how effective this will be is yet to be seen.

From Netsafe’s website:

Anyone who is experiencing online abuse, harassment and cyberbullying can get help from Netsafe thanks to the Harmful Digital Communications Act (the Act). Netsafe will receive, assess and investigate complaints related to harmful digital communications from 21 November, 2016.


The Act tackles some of the ways people use technology to hurt others. It aims to prevent and reduce the impact of cyber-bullying, harassment, revenge porn and other forms of abuse and intimidation.

The Act provides quick and affordable ways to get help for people receiving serious or repeated harmful digital communications. A digital communication is harmful if it makes someone seriously emotionally distressed, and if it is a serious breach of one or more of the 10 communication principles in the Act.

What are harmful digital communications?

Harmful digital communications take a variety of forms such as private messages or content that others can see. It includes when someone uses the internet, email, apps, social media or mobile phones to:

  • send or publish threatening or offensive material and messages;
  • spread damaging or degrading rumours about you; and
  • publish online invasive or distressing photographs or videos of you.

What are the 10 communication principles?

The 10 principles work as a guide for how people should communicate online. Netsafe and the District Court will look at these when deciding if a digital communication breaches the Act.

The 10 principles say that a digital communication should not:

  1. disclose sensitive personal facts about a person;
  2. be threatening, intimidating, or menacing;
  3. be grossly offensive;
  4. be indecent or obscene;
  5. be used to harass a person;
  6. make a false allegation;
  7. breach confidences;
  8. incite or encourage anyone to send a deliberately harmful message;
  9. incite or encourage a person to commit suicide; and
  10. denigrate a person’s colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

How to get help?

If you are concerned about the immediate safety of you or someone else, please call 111. If you or someone you know needs help with a harmful digital communication, contact Netsafe toll free on 0508 NETSAFE or complete a complaint form at netsafe.org.nz/report.

Netsafe can look into your complaint and tell you if there’s anything else you can do to stop the abuse and stay safe. We may also work with you and the person harassing you to get them to stop.

If Netsafe can’t resolve things, you can apply to the District Court for help – but you have to have tried to resolve things with Netsafe first.

How can the District Court help?

The court deals with cases of serious or repeated harmful digital communications that Netsafe hasn’t been able to resolve.

The court will look into whether the person harassing you has seriously breached, will seriously breach or has repeatedly breached one or more of the 10 communication principles. It will also consider how people responded to the advice Netsafe provided.

The court has the power to order people to stop their harmful digital communications and take action including:

  • Ordering material to be taken down;
  • Ordering someone to publish a correction, an apology or give you a right of reply;
  • Ordering online content hosts (like social media/telecommunication companies or blog owners) to release the identity of the person behind an anonymous communication; and
  • Order name suppression to protect your identity or the identity of anyone else involved in the dispute.

Anyone who ignores the District Court’s orders can be prosecuted and penalised. The penalty is up to six months in prison or a fine up to $5,000. Companies can be fined up to $20,000.

What if the situation is really serious?

The Act also includes a criminal offence to penalise the most serious perpetrators. It is illegal to send messages and post material online that deliberately cause somebody serious emotional distress.

Police will handle these most serious cases. They may prosecute a person or company if:

  • they intended the communication to cause harm;
  • it’s reasonable to expect that a person in your position would be harmed by it; and
  • you were harmed.

The court will consider a variety of factors including how widely the material spread and whether what was said was true or not. The penalties for this offence are a fine of up to $50,000 or up to two years’ jail for an individual, and up to $200,000 for a body corporate.

How this affects  Your NZ and you if you comment here: Harmful communications and Your NZ


Leave a comment


  1. Lynn Prentice has some interesting comments – and concerns – about Netsafe being used as the approved agency and about the effect of the Act:

    Netsafe finally gets its act together on the HDCA – sort of… and inadequately

    • Kevin

       /  21st November 2016

      Overall some fair comments by our Lynn. In short he’s saying Netsafe doesn’t have the “skillz.” And I can’t disagree. From what I know of Netsafe they’re more an advisory organisation for non-techie people on how to keep safe on the net – avoiding scams, keeping your kids safe from predators – that kind of thing.

      Anyway what’s interesting to me is how would the Act apply to someone like Prentice and his moderation methods? I believe he would have fallen foul of at least the following principles:

      Principle 3
      A digital communication should not be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the position of the affected individual.

      Principle 5
      A digital communication should not be used to harass an individual.

      Principle 10
      A digital communication should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

      Ok, maybe not Principle 10 as it doesn’t include political believes such as being a “right wing nut job”.

      The ironic thing is that I think this proves how bad the Act is because it is simply ludicrous that Prentice should, at least in theory, fall foul of the Act for anything he’s posted at The Standard and how he moderates. Sure, you can feel rightly offended if he calls you hurtful names and questions the size of your genitalia but that doesn’t mean the law should get involved and a safe place should be provided for you to run have a cry.

      It’s like the authors of the Act have no idea that the internet is still the Wild West and is a rough and tumble place.

      Anyway what to do about the Act? At this stage overwhelming NetSafe with frivolous complaints seems like a good although risky strategy.

      Reductio ad absurdum.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  21st November 2016

        Very good comment, Kevin. It would be good to tee-up in advance an informed response action from all NZ bloggers and readers to abuse of the Act. That is the time to overwhelm the enemy when they are vulnerable to righteous indignation, IMO.

  2. Klik Bate

     /  21st November 2016

    I wonder if ‘Bishop Brian’ might find reason to take umbrage ❓

  3. I wonder if Hager’s use of stolen emails to validate a hypothesis of Dirty Politics would survive the Police test given they have long memories and have had to pay up substantial costs to him? I also wonder, if there is not a continuing offence of using “harmful communications” by the presence of “Dirty Politics” in book stalls for sale, and whether certain actors involved are thinking of testing the waters.


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