New Zealanders’ online safety concerns reflected in proposed legislation

Online safety issues and concerns are universal yet have geographical relevance. I recently spent seven weeks on temporary assignment to Netsafe, New Zealand’s premier Internet safety organization. What I heard time and again from colleagues, parents, regulators and the general New Zealand public was that online bullying and the effects of harmful online content are concerns this island nation shares with many others (parents, consumers) across the globe.

Kids, parents and regulators in New Zealand have seen the effects of harmful online content and, the public has encouraged lawmakers to take action. One striking characteristic of the New Zealand Parliament is its ability to move and quickly pass new legislation. Regulators can, if they wish, introduce a bill in the morning and enact it into law that same day. The Harmful Digital Communications Bill (HDCB), which stemmed from concerns about online bullying, seeks to provide a remedy for removal of content from both an individual and an online content host. The bill was introduced this session, and is expected to be enacted into law in the next couple of months. The HDCB was a popular office topic, being that NetSafe will likely be the agency appointed to assist with implementation once it passes.

Working in an open room, I was privy to many calls NetSafe received from local consumers, asking for online safety and security advice and guidance. Indeed, NetSafe is New Zealand’s “9-1-1” hotline for all things computing-device and Internet-related. From these and other interactions, I deduced the most pressing Internet safety issues: online bullying and harmful content.

New Zealand is not alone in its struggles with online bullying and harms caused by damaging user-generated content. Microsoft has recognized that these issues have been—and remain—top of mind for Internet users. We define online bullying as the use of electronic technology to demonstrate behaviour that taunts, demeans or harasses someone less powerful. To help educate the public and allay concerns, we’ve created numerous resources for parents, teachers and child caregivers. These include a brochure, fact sheet and quiz. We will continue to focus on online bullying for the remainder of 2014 and beyond.

Another issue discussed broadly in New Zealand was “selfies”—not the photos you might take of yourself while out with friends at a restaurant or party, but those that young people take of themselves in various stages of undress and send to boy/girlfriends. A 2012 study by the U.K. Internet Watch Foundation showed that 88.15 percent of such self-generated content had migrated to commercial sites.

I was aware of this statistic, but part of me couldn’t believe it. Then, I started discussing it with my NetSafe colleagues, who shared anecdotes from consumer calls and interactions with parents, teachers and students. In one jaw-dropping tale, they told me a student approached a NetSafe presenter after an in-school presentation by NetSafe on the dangers of taking and sharing selfies. The student said NetSafe “had it all wrong,” and completely missed the boat. Rather, the 16-year-old said that when he was interested in a girl, he surveyed his friends to see who had a naked picture of her and looked at the picture before deciding whether to ask her out. While shocking to me, my NetSafe colleagues were unmoved; they’d heard this refrain countless times before. Conversations yielded similar stories from regulators, educators and law enforcement in both New Zealand and Australia.

These engagements provided a unique, “on-the-ground” global perspective I usually don’t have in my day-to-day work. This perspective is invaluable, not to mention further confirmation that our online safety team is focused on the most relevant and topical issues. Look for more from us on selfies in 2015.

As we continue to think about online safety issues, my time in New Zealand reminds me that these issues span the globe—and that some things, like wanting a safer Internet, are a universal goal.

Learn more about our work in online safety generally by consulting these resources: digital citizenship graphical whitepaper, online safety toolkit. Also, regularly check in to our Safety & Security Center, where all of our tools and resources are posted. “Like” our page on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

About the Author

Senior Online Safety Strategist, Trustworthy Computing, Microsoft