NetSafe piles on staff as it prepares to become Kiwi social media sheriff

Agency taps $16.4m in new funding as it braces for 10,000 complaints a year as the "approved agency" for the Harmful Digital Communications Act. With special feature audio.

Got a problem with a bully on Facebook or Twitter, or an offensive post? Who ya gonna call? Not the social networks themselves, which are almost impossible to reach by phone, and can take ages to respond to a complaint left online – or send you a generic cut-and-paste reply.

The Harmful Digital Communications Act (or HDC, popularly known as the “cyber-bullying bill”), passed last year. The legislation allows for an "approved agency" to approach companies like Facebook and Twitter on users' behalf.

The idea is that while Joe Citizen will get left endlessly on hold, a Crown-backed agency – particularly one helping to apply a law that provides for fines of up to $200,000 – will be able to jump to the front of the queue.

The Law Commission recommended the non-profit NetSafe become the HDC’s approved agency.

That’s no small role, given the government estimates the approved agency will have to grapple with 10,000 complaints a year.

After a long run-up, the government duly appointed NetSafe to the role in June. Chief executive Martin Cocker says there is no set date to activate the role but he’s aiming for around mid-November.

NetSafe is a longstanding, well-respected non-profit, which operates with funding provided by the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Education, MBIE and InternetNZ.

Up until now, its main role has been education. From around mid-November, it will divide its resources evenly between education and following up on complaints.

Netsafe has nine staff and it has just advertised seven roles. Another 10 or so will shortly be posted, including legal and research positions.

How is the expansion being bankrolled?

“The final budget for the approved agency is still being negotiated – although we do obviously have an estimation to progress with. The government announced $16.4 million over four years to support the HDC Civil process and NetSafe will receive a significant portion of that.”

There is an element of flexibility, he says, and NetSafe will be feeling its way in terms of issues like how to deal with peaks and troughs. The chief executive says it is likely that only a minority of those anticipated 10,000 complaints will warrant action.

What will happen if a social media site, online publisher or individual ignores NetSafe’s overtures?

“The approved agency is deliberately set up as an agency of assistance and influence, not an enforcement agency,” Mr Cocker says.

“So we won’t be forcing anybody to take any action. We’ll be recommending things to them so they can avoid the next phase in the HDC civil process, which is that a complaint can be taken to the District Court. The District Court is setting up a faster process for dealing with these cases and they’ll make findings against those complaints."

NetSafe's aim will be to avoid that outcome.

“We’ll be looking at the complaints people are making and advising the parties on the best course of action to avoid the need to go to court and get a court order," Mr Cocker says.

“I think most people who’ve produced something that is offensive to somebody else when given the option to correct it will probably take it – and avoid going to court and all the hassle that comes with that.”

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POSTSCRIPT: The Harmful Digital Communications Act

Depending on who's viewing it, the act is either a much-needed weapon in the fight against cyber-bullies and offensive online posts or an attack on free speech.

Here are its key provisions:

  • A fine of up to $50,000 for an individual or up to $200,000 for a body corporate, or up to two years’ jail for posting or sending a “harmful digital communication” – aka cyber-bullying with a post likely to cause distress. The bill covers racist, sexist and religiously intolerant comments, plus those about disabilities or sexual orientation;

  • Up to three years’ jail for the new crime of incitement to suicide;

  • An “approved agency” (NetSafe) will advocate on behalf of complainants. The aim is that the agency will be able to make direct contact with web publishers and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, where a member of the public often has trouble getting heard;

  • If NetSafe makes no headway, a complaint is taken to a District Court judge;

  • Web publishers can opt-in to a safe harbour provision, protecting them from liability (and arguably also crimping free speech) if they agree to take down allegedly offending material on demand or at least within a grace period of 48 hours.

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