On-Line Speech Harms

A Sketch of Issues to be Considered in Legislating for the Digital Paradigm

This is a paper that was presented to the Bullying, Young People and the Law Symposium held under the auspices of the Allanah and Madeline Foundation in Melbourne 18 – 19 July 2013. It was part of a New Zealand contribution to the symposium by Cate Brett of the Law Commission, Martin Cocker of Netsafe and the author. The presentation accompanying this paper may be found here.

Introduction

This paper argues that legislating for behaviour in the digital environment raises unique issues. Whereas legislating for the physical world has certain architectural and physical constraints, such constraints may not be present in the digital space, or may be so paradigmatically different that new considerations need to be employed. This paper considers firstly the qualities and properties of digital technologies that provide challenges for conventional legal processes. It then goes on to consider the New Zealand Law Commission proposals to deal with on-line speech harms and any limitations on the effectiveness of those provisions. It concludes with some thoughts about the application of values developed within one paradigm to those who live in another.

The Digital Paradigm

Mark Prensky, an American educator, spoke of the issues confronting education in the digital paradigm. He suggested that there was a growing culture of people who had grown up knowing nothing but the Internet, digital devices and seeking out information on-line. This group he called “Digital Natives” – those born after 1990. He contrasted this class with “Digital Immigrants” – those who had developed the information seeking and uses before the advent of the Internet. Digital Immigrants used digital communications systems but their thought processes were not as committed to them as Digital Natives. Although they could speak the same language as the Digital Natives, they had a different accent that derived from an earlier information paradigm.

Digital Immigrants have an approach to information that is based upon sequential thinking, single tasking and limited resources to enable communication, all underpinned by the fixity of text. For the Digital Immigrant text represents finality. A book is not to be reworked, and the authority of a text depends upon its finality.[1] Information is presented within textual constraints that originate in the Print Paradigm.

Digital Natives inhabit a different information space. Everything is “multi” – multi-resource, multi-media, multi-tasking, parallel thinking. Information for the Digital Native may in its first instantiation be text but it lacks the fixity of text, relying rather on the dynamic, fluid, shifting qualities of the digital environment. Text does not mean finality. Text is malleable, copyable, moveable and text, like all other forms of information in the digital space, is there to be shared.

In the final analysis, the fundamental differences between Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives can be reduced to one fundamental proposition – it’s all about how we process information. For Digital Natives the information resources are almost without limitation and the Digital Native mind shifts effortlessly between text, web-page hypertext links, YouTube clips, Facebook walls, flikr and Tumblr, the terse, abbreviated tweet or text message and all of it not on a desktop or a laptop but a handheld smartphone.

But there is more to this discussion than the content that media convergence enabled by digital technologies provides.  Content, as McLuhan said, is  “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” [2] It is as important to understand how it is that digital information technologies work. We need to understand the underlying qualities or properties of digital technologies to understand the way in which they drive our information uses, activities and behaviours. Permit me a brief digression while I offer an example.

Information Technology Properties – The Printing Press

In her seminal work on the printing press – The Printing Press as an Agent of Change – Elisabeth Eisenstein identified six fundamental qualities that the print technology introduced that dramatically challenged the way in which the scribal culture produced texts.   These particular qualities were the enablers that underpinned the distribution of content that enhanced the developing Renaissance, that spread Luther’s ninety-seven arguments around Germany in the space of two weeks from the day that they were nailed on the Church door at Wittenberg, and allowed for the wide communication of scientific information that enabled experiment, comment, development and what we now know as the Scientific Revolution.

And it also happened in my own field the law.  Within 300 years of the introduction of the printing press by Gutenberg the oral-memorial customary- based ever-changing law had to be recorded in a book for it to exist.

It would be fair to remark that Eisenstein’s approach was and still is contentious. But what is important is her identification of the paradigmatic differences between the scribal and print cultures based upon the properties or qualities of the new technologies. These qualities were responsible for the shift in the way that intellectuals and scholars approached information.

There were six features or qualities of print that significantly differentiated the new technology from scribal texts.

a) dissemination

b) standardisation

c) reorganization

d) data collection

e) fixity and preservation

f) amplification and reinforcement.

For example, dissemination of information was increased by printed texts not solely by volume but by way of availability, dispersal to different locations and cost. Dissemination allowed a greater spread of legal material to diverse locations, bringing legal information to a wider audience. The impact upon the accessibility of knowledge was enhanced by the greater availability of texts and, in time, by the development of clearer and more accessible typefaces.

Standardisation of texts, although not as is understood by modern scholars, was enabled by print. Every text from a print run had an identical or standardised content. Every copy had identical pagination and layout along with identical information about the publisher and the date of publication. Standardised content allowed for a standardised discourse. In the scribal process errors could be perpetuated by copying, and frequently in the course of that process additional ones occurred. However, the omission of one word by a compositor was a “standardised” error that did not occur in the scribal culture but that had a different impact and could be “cured” by the insertion of an “errata” note before the book was sold. Yet standardisation itself was not an absolute and the printing of “errata” was not the complete answer to the problem of error. Interaction on the part of the reader was required to insert the “errata” at the correct place in the text.

In certain cases print could not only perpetuate error but it could be used actively to mislead or disseminate falsehood. The doubtful provenance of The Compleate Copyholder attributed to Sir Edward Coke is an example.[3] Standardisation, as a quality of print identified by Eisenstein, must be viewed in light of these qualifications.

Print allowed greater flexibility in the organization and reorganization of material and its presentation. Material was able to be better ordered using print than in manuscript codices. Innovations such as tables, catalogues, indices and cross-referencing material within the text were characteristics of print. Indexing, cross-referencing and ordering of material were seized upon by jurists and law printers.

Print provided an ability to access improved or updated editions with greater ease than in the scribal milieu by the collection, exchange and circulation of data among users, along with the error trapping to which reference has been made. This is not to say that print contained fewer errors than manuscripts. Print accelerated the error making process that was present in the scribal culture. At the same time dissemination made the errors more obvious as they were observed by more readers. Print created networks of correspondents and solicited criticism of each edition. The ability to set up a system of error-trapping, albeit informal, along with corrections in subsequent editions was a significant advantage attributed to print by the philosopher, David Hume, who commented that “The Power which Printing gives us of continually improving and correcting our Works in successive editions appears to me the chief advantage of that art.”[4]

Fixity and preservation are connected with standardisation. Fixity sets a text in place and time. Preservation, especially as a result of large volumes, allows the subsequent availability of that information to a wide audience. Any written record does this, but the volume of material available and the ability to disseminate enhanced the existing properties of the written record. For the lawyer, the property of fixity had a significant impact.

Fixity and the preservative power of print enabled legal edicts to become more available and more irrevocable. In the scribal period Magna Carta was published (proclaimed) bi-annually in every shire. However, by 1237 there was confusion as to which “Charter” was involved. In 1533, by looking at the “Tabula” of Rastell’s Grete Abregement of the Statutys a reader could see how often it had been confirmed in successive Royal statutes. It could no longer be said that the signing of a proclamation or decree was following “immemorial custom”. The printed version fixed “custom” in place and time. In the same way, a printed document could be referred to in the future as providing evidence of an example which a subsequent ruler or judge could adopt and follow. As precedents increased in permanence, the more difficult it was to vary an established “custom”. Thus fixity or preservation may describe a quality inherent in print as well as a further intellectual element that print imposed by its presence.

Although Eisenstein’s work was directed more towards the changing intellectual environment and activity that followed the advent of printing and printed materials, it should not be assumed that printing impacted only upon intellectual elites. Sixteenth and seventeenth century individuals were not as ignorant of their letters as may be thought. There are two aspects of literacy that must be considered. One is the ability to write; the other being the ability to read. Reading was taught before writing and it is likely that more people could read a broadside ballad than could sign their names. Writing was taught to those who remained in school from the ages of seven or eight, whereas reading was taught to those who attended up until the age of six and then were removed from school to join the labour force. Print made information more available to ordinary people who could read.

Another thing that we have got to remember is that media work on two levels. The first is that a medium is a technology that enables communication and the tools that we have to access media content are the associated delivery technologies.

The second level, and this is important is that a medium has an associated set of protocols or social and cultural practices including the values associated with information – that have grown up around the technology. Delivery systems are just machines but the second level generates and dictates behaviour.[5]

Eisenstein’s argument is that when we go beneath the delivery system and look at the qualities or the properties of a new information technology, we are considering what shapes and forms the basis for the changes in behaviour and in social and cultural practices. The qualities of a paradigmatically different information technology fundamentally change the way that we approach and deal with information. In many cases the change will be slow and imperceptible. Adaptation is usually a gradual process. Sometimes subconsciously the changes in the way that we approach information changes our intellectual habits. Textual analysis had been an intellectual activity since information was recorded in textual form. I contend that the development of principles of statutory interpretation, a specialised form of textual analysis, followed Thomas Cromwell’s dissemination and promulgation of the Reformation statutes, complete with preambles, in print.[6]

From all this it would be fair to ask –  what’s the difference? What’s changed? All we’ve got is a bunch of machinery that allows us to do what we have always done which is to read and watch movies and do the same things that we did with radio or the television – the only thing is that it’s all been brought together – there has been a convergence of the various delivery systems.    And on the surface that’s perfectly correct because what you are talking about there is content.  You’re talking about the material that’s delivered rather than looking at the delivery system.

The Medium Is….

Once there is a recognition of the fact that there are properties that underlie an information technology that influence the way in which we address content, and that will govern or moderate information activities,  we begin to understand what Marshall McLuhan meant by his aphorism “The Medium is the Message.” Understanding the medium and the way it governs and moderates information activities allows us to understand the impact of the digital communications technologies – a convergence of everything that has gone before and the way in which it redefines the use of information and the way we access it, process it, use it, respond to it and our expectations of it and its availability.

The Properties of Digital Communications Technologies

Many of the properties that Eisenstein identified for print are present in digital technologies. Every new information technology – and this has been the case from the printing press onwards – has its own particular properties or qualities that significantly differentiate it from other earlier information technologies.

The properties that I identify are not an exclusive list. The identification of the properties or qualities of digital information technologies is very much a work in progress. But these are the ones that occur to me. Some of them have already been reflected in the discussion that has preceded and I give a very brief description of what each property means. A more detailed analysis has yet to be developed.

  • Persistence – summed up in the phrase “the document that does not die” – that once information is on the Internet it is more likely than not to remain there.

 Continuing change or what you could refer to as the disruptive element – continuing disruptive change is a characteristic of the digital space – the idea of a “breathing space” between times of accelerated change no longer exists. This quality is linked to “permissionless innovation” below.

 Delinearisation of Information – in essence, the effect of hypertext links that allow and enable thinking to follow other than a strictly logical sequence, but to branch of into related (sometimes tenuously related) areas of information

 Dynamic information – the ability to cut, paste, alter, change and modify text once it has been placed in digital format – exemplified by the ability of on-line newspapers to update stories or significantly alter them as new information comes to hand

 Dissociative enablement,  – the ability to sit behind a screen and say and do things that one would never contemplate face to face or in “meat space”

Permissionless innovation – you don’t need to ask to put a new tool or protocol on the Internet. Sir Tim Berners-Lee didn’t need anyone’s permission to bolt the World Wide Web onto the Internet; nor did Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook, Sergey Brin and Larry Page with Google, Jeff Bezos with Amazon or Jack Dorsey with Twitter. If you build it they will come sums up this quality.

Availability – information comes to the user. The print paradigm localised book based information in a library or a bookshop. The Internet brings directly information into the home.

Participation – this is a very wide concept which includes information and file sharing as well as the ability to comment on blog sites, post photos on Facebook, engage in Twitter exchanges, participate in IRC chatrooms and break new stories via a blog.

Searchability  is related to the next quality but is the first step in the information recovery process – a common feature of the Internet before it went commercial and thereafter has been to make some sense of the vast amount of information that is available. Thus from Gopher to Google the quest for making information available has been a constant, and it enables users to find what they are looking for.

Retrievability – and once the successful search has been carried out, the information is available and can be readily and immediately obtained – associated with information availability above.

This means that the information expectations of Digital Natives have been shaped and moulded by these qualities. Their uses and expectations of what happens in the on-line world are quite different to those of their parents (Digital Immigrants) or those of my generation (Digital Aliens). Thus any solution to on-line problems must be premised upon an understanding of the technology and the way that it shapes behaviours and values underlying those behaviours. The solution must also recognise another McLuhan aphorism – we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.[7]

This of course gives rise to the question of whether or not the internet changes us forever.  Underlying this theory is the concept of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt to and learn from new stimuli.   The concept of neuroplasticity was picked up by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember.[8]  His book, based upon an earlier article that appeared in the Atlantic, has as it thesis that the internet is responsible for the dumbing down of society based upon the way in which our minds respond both to the wealth of information and its availability.

The neuroplasticity argument is picked up by Susan Greenfield[9] who believes the web is an instant gratification engine, reinforcing behaviours and neuronal connections that are making adults more childlike and kids hungry for information that is presented in a super simplistic way but in fact reduces their understanding of it.  Greenfield is of the view that the web spoon feeds us things to capture our attention. This means we are learning to constantly seek out material that stimulates us and our plastic minds are being rewarded by our “quick click” behaviour.  We want new interactive experiences and we want them now.

This view is disputed by Aleks Krotoski[10] who firstly observed that there is no evidential support for Greenfield’s propositions which pre-suppose that once we used the web we will forever online and never log off again.  According to Greenfield, says Krotoski, we become connected to our computers and other devices in a co-dependent exclusive almost biological way ignoring where how and why we are connecting.  Krotoski, for example, disputes internet addiction, internet use disorder or neurological rewiring.

In some respects Carr and Greenfield are using the “low hanging fruit” of technological fear[11] to advance their propositions.  Krotoski’s rejection of those views is, on the other hand, a little too absolute and in my view the answer lies somewhere in between.  The issue is a little more nuanced than whether or not the Internet is dumbing us down or whether or not there is any evidence of that.

My argument is that the impact of the internet lies in the way in which it redefines the use of information and the way we access it, process it, use it, respond to it and our expectations of it and its availability.

This may not seem to be as significant as Carr’s rewiring or Greenfields neuroplasticity but it is, in my view, just as important.  Our decision making is based upon information.  Although some of our activity could be termed responses to stimuli, or indeed it might be instinctive, most of the stimuli to which we respond can in fact be defined as information – if not all of it.  The information that we obtain when crossing the road comes from our senses and sight and hearing but in many other of our activities we require information upon we which may deliberate and to which we respond in making decision about what we are going to do, buy and so on.

And paradigmatically different ways of information acquisition are going to change the way in which we use and respond to information. There are other changes that are taking place that arise from some of the fundamental qualities that underline new digital communications technologies – and all communication technologies have these particular properties or qualities underlying them and which attach to them; from the printing press through to the wireless through to the radio through to television and into the digital paradigm.  It is just that digital systems are so fundamentally different in the way in which they operate and in their pervasive nature that they usher in a new paradigm.[12]

Looking at Solutions

Thus if we seek a solution to some of the problems that involve Internet-based behaviour we must recognise these qualities and impacts of the digital communications technologies that underlie these behaviours. For example any solution must recognise:

    • The time factor – in “internet time” information moves faster than it does in the real world
    • Information is dynamic and spreads “virally”
    • “Dissociative enablement” means that people are going to behave differently when operating from the apparent anonymity of a private room or space and from behind a computer screen
    • Any remedy is going to be partial – given that information on the internet is going to remain in some shape or form (the quality of persistence or “the document that does not die”)
    • Normal civil and political rights including a robust recognition of freedom of speech and expression and that the internet is neutral.
    • Restrictions on a free and open internet must be minimal.

The New Zealand Solution

The New Zealand solution set out in the Digital Speech Harms paper from the Law Commission takes a two-pronged approach. One involves the creation of a new offence. The other involves a fast-track solution of a civil nature involving the creation of a Communications Tribunal.

A New Offence

The Law Commission considers that causing harm by the use of a communications device should be criminalised. The first thing that must be recognised is that the use of communications device is not criminalised, nor may this be seen as an attempt to regulate the Internet. What is being addressed is a behaviour involving the use of a communications device that causes harm to another.

The proposed language of the offence is as follows:

Causing harm by means of communication device

(1) A person (person A) commits an offence if person A sends or causes to be sent to another person (person B) by means of any communication device a message or other matter that is—

 (a) grossly offensive; or

 (b) of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character; or

 (c) knowingly false.

 (2) The prosecution must establish that—

 (a) person A either—

 (i) intended to cause person B substantial emotional distress; or

 (ii) knew that the message or other matter would cause person B substantial emotional distress; and

 (b) the message or other matter is one that would cause substantial emotional distress to someone in person B’s position; and

 (c) person B in fact saw the message or other matter in any electronic media.

 (3) It is not necessary for the prosecution to establish that the message or other matter was directed specifically at person B.

(4) In determining whether a message or other matter is grossly offensive, the court may take into account any factors it considers relevant, including—

 (a) the extremity of the language used:

 (b) the age and characteristics of the victim:

 (c) whether the message or other matter was anonymous:

 (d) whether the message or other matter was repeated:

 (e) the extent of circulation of the message or other matter:

 (f) whether the message or other matter is true or false:

 (g) the context in which the message or other matter appeared.

 (5) A person who commits an offence against this section is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or a fine not exceeding $2,000.

(6) In this section, communication device means a device that enables any message or other matter to be communicated electronically.

The message set out in subsection (1) has to pass a very high threshold. Similarly the intention test in subsection (2) is high and the criteria in subparagraphs (a) – (c) are conjunctive. Each one must be proven to the criminal standard. Subsection (4) sets out matters that a Court may take into account, but these criteria are not exclusive.

One matter that must be taken into account is that the section would have to be interpreted and applied in accordance with the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA). Now the section as it stands criminalises a certain quality of speech, thus engaging a consideration of the freedom of expression right guaranteed by s. 14 of NZBORA. That must take into account issues of a justified limitation upon the freedom of expression right. In my view the application of NZBORA would necessarily result in a very cautious approach by a Court. The evidence of the offending would have to be clear and unequivocal and could not really apply to a trivial matter.

A problem that arises with prosecutions for such an offence is the nature of the legal process which rarely matches “Internet time” and the fact that the section does not allow for the removal of any offending material, thus allowing the persistence of the information. The section addresses the behaviour but the message may still remain, preserved on the Internet.

The Communications Tribunal

The proposal for a Communications Tribunal, and for the powers and remedies that Tribunal may bring to play could well address some of the qualities of the digital environment, and possibly more effectively than a criminal prosecution, which, in my view, would be reserved only for the most extreme cases.

The Communications Tribunal

a) would have a limited jurisdiction

b) could provide limited and specific remedies

c) would deal with content and not criminality

d) would operate “on the papers”

e) would be a remedy of last resort after a filtering process has been carried out by the Approved Agency

 

Communications Principles

On the face of it, the Communications Tribunal has some significant powers which, at first glimpse, interfere dramatically with freedom of expression. The approach by the Tribunal must be within the context of Communications Principles proposed by the Law Commission. These are:

Principle 1

A communication should not disclose sensitive personal facts about an individual.

Principle 2

A communication should not be threatening, intimidating, or menacing.

Principle 3

A communication should not be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the complainant’s position.

Principle 4

A communication should not be indecent or obscene.

Principle 5

A communication should not be part of a pattern of conduct that constitutes harassment.

Principle 6

A communication should not make a false allegation.

Principle 7

A communication should not contain a matter that is published in breach of confidence.

Principle 8

A communication should not incite or encourage anyone to send a message to a person with the intention of causing that person harm

Principle 9

A communication should not incite or encourage another person to commit suicide.

Principle 10

A communication should not denigrate a person by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, ethical belief, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

Matters that the Tribunal Would Have to Consider

In considering an application for relief the Tribunal would have to take into account the following:

(a) the content of the communication, its offensive nature, and the level of harm caused by it:

(b) the purpose of the communicator in communicating it:

(c) the occasion, context, and subject-matter of the communication:

(d) the extent to which the communication has spread beyond the original communicator and recipient:

(e) the age and vulnerability of the complainant:

(f) the truth or falsity of the statement:

(g) the extent to which the communication is of public interest:

(h) the conduct of the defendant, including any attempt by the defendant to minimise the harm caused:

(i) the conduct of the complainant, including the extent to which that conduct has contributed to the harm suffered.

The Law Commission also emphasised that in exercising its functions, the Tribunal should have regard to the important of freedom of expression. Thus an analysis pursuant to the provisions of NZBORA would have to be undertaken.

The Orders that the Tribunal Might Make

(a) an order requiring that material specified in the order be taken down from any electronic media:

(b) an order to cease publishing the same, or substantially similar, communications in the future:

(c) an order not to encourage any other person to engage in similar communications with the complainant:

(d) a declaration that a communication breaches a communication principle:

(e) an order requiring that a factually incorrect statement in a communication be corrected:

(f) an order that the complainant be given a right of reply:

(g) an order to apologise to the complainant:

(h) an order requiring that the author of a particular communication be identified.

These orders or parts of them may apply to the following:

(a) the defendant:

(b) an internet service provider:

(c) a website host:

(d) any other person, if the Tribunal considers that the defendant is encouraging, or has encouraged, the other person to engage in offensive communication towards the complainant.

Transparency would be ensured in that the Tribunal must publish its decisions and the reasons for them. This is necessary because if there are to be interferences with freedom of expression the reasons for such interference and the extent thereof should be published and made known to counter any suggestion of secret interference with freedom of speech.

As proposed the Communications Tribunal would have the following advantages in dealing with on-line speech harms and at the same time recognise some of the disruptive qualities of the digital paradigm:

a)  it would deal only with the most serious types of on-line speech harm, in that the Approved Agency would filter and deal with the majority of complaints.

b) It would provide a relatively swift response which would accord with “internet time” and at least attempt to mitigate some of the damage that could be done if the material in question was or going or was likely to go viral. Having said that, the persistence quality of information on the Internet may well provide an element of frustration, but responding to the source of the speech harm is a significant first step.

c) it would have an “on the papers” hearing which would obviate the need for conducting a full hearing with parties present, and which would have to fit in around other Court work. This said, with modern technology such as Skype it is possible that a “distributed hearing” where the participants would be other than in the Court building may be possible. New Zealand has specific legislation that allows this.[13]

d) it could provide a remedy by way of a take-down order but it should be noted that power would have to be exercised having regard to the freedom of expression provisions in NZBORA, and the correct analysis based on a proportional approach would have to be undertaken.

e) an order of the Tribunal would constitute a Court order which would receive recognition from providers such as Google or Facebook and thereby the removal of offending content could be expedited.

The Present State of the Play

The report has been received by the Minister.

She has indicated that the recommendation for a Communications Tribunal will not be adopted.

The proposed jurisdiction of the Communications Tribunal will be assumed by the District Court

Some of the issues that may arise and should be addressed as the policy develops into a Bill might include

a) lack of specialist expertise in the field of digital communications law on the Bench and the need for specialised training

b) potential procedural delays if Communications complaints are subsumed as part of the normal Court process – a “fast track” may need to be considered

c) variation or possible lack of consistency in the application of principles and the types of orders that may be made

d) whether or not a process may be developed which will take into account the qualities and realities of the digital paradigm and which recognise that the nature of Internet based communication is fundamentally different and potentially far more damaging than conventional bullying “speech”.

One thing is clear and it is that the activities of the Court in this area will be carefully scrutinised by lawyers, free speech advocates, Internet freedom advocates and the community in general.

A Cautionary Conclusion

There are some who follow the view of Edmund Burke – that each generation has a duty to succeeding generations. Because politics amounts to an intergenerational contract between one generation and the next, politicians should feel entrusted with the conservation of the past for future generations.

The problem is this – in a changing communications paradigm should digital immigrants tell digital natives how to live their lives in the digital environment?

The IT Countrey Justice

July 2013


[1] Ronald Collins and David Skover The Death of Discourse (Caroline Academic Press, Durham N.C. 2005)  p. xix. For a more detailed discussion of the difference between fixed and digital texts see Ronald Collins and David Skover “Paratexts” (1992) 44 Stanford Law Review 509.

[2] Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man Critical Edition W Terrence Gordon (ed)(Gingko Press, Berkeley Ca 2003)

[3]The Compleate Copyholder (T. Coates for W Cooke, London,1641) Wing C4912.

[4] Cited by J.A. Cochrane Dr Johnson’s Printer: The Life of William Strahan (Routledge and K Paul, London, 1964) p.19 at n.2.

[5] Lisa Gitelman “Introduction: Media as Historical Subjects: in Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture (MIT Press, Cambridge, 2008) p. 7.

[6] This is a very bald assertion. The argument is a little more nuanced and involves a consideration of the use of the printing press by Cromwell, the significant increase in legislative activity during the course of the English Reformation, the political and legal purpose of statutory preambles, the advantages of an authoritative source of law in printed form for governing authorities, all facilitated by underpinning qualities of print such as standardisation, fixity and dissemination.

[7] Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man  above n. 2.

[8] (Atlantic Books, London 2010). See also Nicholas Car “Is Google Making Us Stupid” Atlantic Magazine 1 July 2008 http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/  (last accessed 31 May 2013)

[9] See especially Susan Greenfield “Living On-line is Changing Our Brains” New Scientist, 3 August 2011 http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128236.400-susan-greenfield-living-online-is-changing-our-brains.html (last accessed 31 May 2013) For this and for her assertions of “internet addiction” she has she has been criticised by Dr. Ben Goldacre for claiming that technology has adverse effects on the human brain, without having published any research, and retracting some claims when challenged. Goldacre suggested that “A scientist with enduring concerns about a serious widespread risk would normally set out their concerns clearly, to other scientists, in a scientific paper”  Ben Goldacre, “Serious Claims Belong in a Serious Scientific Paper” The Guardian 21 October 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/21/bad-science-publishing-claims (last accessed 31 May 2013)

 

[10]Untangling the Web: What the Internet is Doing to You  (Faber, London 2013). Presentation by Aleks Krotoski at the Writers and Readers Festival, Auckland 19 May 2013. Personal discussion between the author and Aleks Krotoski 19 May 2013.

[11] Sometimes referred to as “The Frankenstein Complex”

[12] See above for some of the qualities of digital information technologies.

[13] The Courts (Remote Participation) Act 2010

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Taxing Overseas On-Line Purchases

The issue of whether or not sales tax – known in New Zealand as Goods and Services Tax (GST) – should apply to purchases overseas on-line purchases has hit the political radar. Articles from the New Zealand Herald addressing aspects of the debate may be seen here, here, here , here, here and here . Public responses to the proposal may be seen here.  

As fortune would have it I had the pleasure of assessing an excellent LLB  honours dissertation on this very topic. The dissertation referred to what the author referred to as a de minimis rule – that customs and IRD had set a figure on the value of transactions beneath $400.00 that would not attract GST. Transactions over $400 would attract GST. The basic reason for the de minimis figure is that the costs of collection exceed the tax collected providing a nil or negative return for the tax collector.

New Zealand retailers have been complaining for some time at the perceived difficulties that they face from off-shore on-line retailers. One argument that is advanced, as may be perceived from the articles referred to above, is that on-line transactions are more attractive because they are GST free (although in some cases the GST free component is cancelled out by shipping costs).

There are a number of issues that arise in this discussion. At the moment there appears to be an absence of publicity of hard evidence to support retailers’ claims. It would be helpful to the debate if that was made available. It would also be interesting to try and see what impact on-line sales within New Zealand are having upon “bricks and mortar” or “High Street” retailers. The playing field there is level in that both on-line and “High Street” retailers have to collect GST. There could be many other reasons apart from GST that would mean that the on-line retailer is more competitive than the “High Street” one. It would be interesting to see some evidence of these facets of the argument.

It may be seen from just that observation that the discussion is a very nuanced one, and the dissertation that I assessed dealt only with the legal and tax policy implications of the debate. I would urge the author, if he is reading this, to publish the dissertation either in a law journal or on-line, and I would welcome any comments that he wishes to make on this post.

I don’t presume to be an expert upon tax policy and the economics that surrounds it. But in this post, rather than engage or take a side in the debate, I should like to try and identify some of the issues that may need to be considered and that demonstrate that this is a nuanced and complex subject. I do this within a theme that has been present in many of my posts on this blog – the properties of the Digital Paradigm and how they must be considered in developing legal solutions in the Digital environment. I don’t express a view on the merits of either side nor should this post be interpreted in that way I try to identify some of the issues within the context of the Digital Paradigm

1. The New Paradigm

One of the qualities of the Digital Paradigm is continuing disruptive change. After the printing press had bedded in and society had become accustomed to the changes that the press enabled in the communication of information there was a time gap between the next information technology innovations such as telegraphy, the wireless and the radio. There was time to adapt – take a breath – reassess certainties. In an environment of continuing disruptive change that time for a pause – David Lange’s “cup of tea” – no longer exists. Retailers are facing doing business in a paradigm where the only certainty is uncertainty, unpredictability is the only thing that is predictable because change is a constant. I am sure that retailers are well aware of this. But it is a reality that must be faced.

One example of the way that change poses a challenge lies in the suggestion that if credit card transactions provide some sort of foundation for the applicability of GST to on-line transactions,  consumers will merely more to on-line payment facilities such as Paypal. Presumably a Paypal transaction will in some way mask the nature of transaction when it appears on the credit card. This demonstrates that the Digital Paradigm provides a number of alternatives to effecting the transaction which may add layers of difficulty to imposing a GST regime on on-line transactions, and this is an issue that would need to be addressed. And, of course, in an environment of continuing disruptive change, who is to say that other payment methods may not be in development or may already have been developed. Bitcoin is one example that comes to mind.

So the first issue will be to consider making any rule flexible and adaptable enough to apply to a constantly changing environment.

2. Consistency and Fairness of Application

Any tax regime must be applied consistently and fairly, and the less complex it is the better. One of the major changes in the New Zealand tax overhaul in the 1980’s was to rid the system of the myriad anomalies that clogged and complicated the tax system.

The Overseas Traveller

Let us take the following hypothetical example to demonstrate an inconsistent approach to the applicability of GST to on-line transactions. Assume that GST applies to all on-line transactions irrespective of value. I travel on business to confer with and advise a client in Hong Kong. Because this is a business trip the costs of travel and accommodation are tax deductible because I will pay tax and GST on the fee that I charge the client (assuming a normal charging regime based in New Zealand). I conclude my business and go for a walk. I pass a camera shop and see a remote wireless device for my camera. The price is $400.00. I purchase the item and return to New Zealand.  Taxes payable in Hong Kong (if any) are refunded to me at the Hong Kong International airport at Lantau prior to departure. I need not declare the item for it is for my personal use and is less than the $700.00 + that I am required to declare upon entering the country. I pay no GST.

The On-Line Purchaser

I go on-line and locate an on-line camera store operating from Hong Kong. I see they have a remote wireless device for my camera. The cost of the item is $400.00 including shipping to New Zealand. I order it. Upon arrival in New Zealand the customs department assess GST at 15% – $60.00. The total cost of the transaction therefore amounts to $460.00.

This demonstrates the inconsistency of approach to the purchase of the same item where the assessment for GST is dependent upon the method of the transaction. An across the counter purchase in Hong Kong attracts no GST. On on-line purchase does attract GST. It also demonstrates an inequality of treatment between the on-line purchaser and the overseas traveller.  In this regard I note that “High Street” retailers have not addressed the damage done to their businesses by travellers sourcing goods overseas.

Perhaps the solution may be to remove the exemption granted to travellers. In that way there would be consistency of approach.

3. Competition

“High Street” retailers claim that they cannot compete with the price of goods available on-line. This a highly complex area and has a large number of issues associated including the costs of a “brick and mortar” operation vs a server and a distribution system – essentially different retailing models. In some respects, the problems faced by “High Street” retailers hark back to the issue of doing business in an environment of continuing disruptive change. There is probably a small advantage in pricing for the on-line retailer and consumer when one factors in not only the absence of GST but also the additional shipping costs. And that argument may well be applicable when we are talking about apples and apples. The problem with the “unfair competition” argument is that often there is no competition between the “High Street” and on-line retailer. Let me give a couple of examples:

a) I like a particular brand of shirts and ties. I discovered the brand on a visit to the United States. The brand is available both in “High Street” outlets in the US and Australia. It is also available on-line through Macy’s website site. The brand is not stocked in New Zealand. Thus there is no competition between the “High Street” retailer in New Zealand and Macy’s On-Line because the New Zealand retailer is not standing in the market place with the item that I want. Essentially what the Internet enables is consumer choice. That is another aspect of the continuing disruptive change that the Digital Paradigm enables. The consumer is no longer limited to the choice provided by the retailer.

b) The on-line book store. I suppose Amazon is the most obvious example of the on-line retailer and because it began its business by selling books on-line, the discussion must turn to books. There can be no doubt that the book trade is suffering as a result of the challenges of the Digital Paradigm. I wonder if it may be a bit simplistic to say that retailers like Amazon have been responsible for the demise of Borders (both in NZ and the US) or the current troubles experienced by Barnes and Noble in the US. There are a number of challenges that booksellers face and not all of them will be resolved by imposing GST on on-line book purchases. The advent of the e-book and the proliferation of digital reading devices provide challenges in terms of availability and convenience that challenge the Print Paradigm itself. I use the term Print Paradigm to describe hard copy printed books because the only resemblance that E-Books have to printed works is that both employ text. Otherwise they are representatives of two entirely different paradigms.

This isn’t a discussion about the challenges faced by the printed book – that is a subject worthy of consideration all on its own – but it probably highlights the nature of continuing disruptive change within the Digital Paradigm.

Once again the issue of choice and whether there is actually a common market place between the High Street retailer and the on-line bookseller comes into focus. The on-line bookseller may be able to provide a title that is otherwise unavailable from the local High Street bookseller. The High Street bookseller can hardly complain of competitive unfairness if there is no competition. Only when the High Street bookseller is selling the same title that is available on-line can the issue of competitive unfairness be raised.

Thus, an issue that must be addressed and considered is whether or not there is in fact competitive unfairness in a marketplace where one player is not present.

The disadvantage in the on-line store is the lack of the shopping or retail therapy associated with considering and choosing, and the wonderful opportunity that the High Street retailer provides to browse and see the stuff you didn’t know about but that you find you wanted. Browsing the shelves of a bookstore beats browsing on Amazon – hands down.

4. Digital Products

The Digital Paradigm has introduced new digital products especially in the field of books, music and movies. If one were to impose GST regime on on-line purchases the assumed paradigm is that of a physical product coming across the border. The problem is that digital products are a stream of bits that come across the borderless Internet. The only time that territoriality becomes relevant is when the digital product is received on the purchaser’s computer.

Perhaps this demonstrates the disruptive nature of continuing change in the Digital Paradigm. The fundamental thinking behind the imposition of GST on on-line purchases assumes a physical package coming across the border. That is perhaps an assumption that derives from the pre-Digital paradigm and that may be obselete. One must be careful about fundamental assumptions in a time of continuing Paradigmatic Change.

The reality is that Digital Product purchases – e-books, movies, music, games and the like – are going to be impossible to track for the purposes of collecting GST. And this demonstrates issues of fairness and inconsistency that have been discussed above.

Clearly the issue of taxing on-line purchases of digital products is going to have to be addressed and the shift away from physcial sale of recorded music was considered at the recent Nethui.

5. Protectionism?

The final issue that occurs to me is whether or not the imposition of GST on all on-line purchases is a tax collection issue or a protectionist issue. The way the argument on behalf of the retailers is put forward in the news media is that a competitive advantage may be restored with the imposition of GST in that purchasers will be less inclined to go on-line shopping if they have to pay GST somewhere along the line.

I wonder if this argument is valid, because it seems to me that it ignores a number of the other factors that I have discussed above. The subtext of the argument seems to be that local retailers will benefit from the imposition of GST on on-line transactions and purchasers will return to the High Street market, deterred from on-line retailing by the imposition of tax. I may misunderstand the argument but it does seem that implicit in this approach is the use of GST as another form of trade tariff albeit at an individual consumer level, and I do not understand that to be the function of a transactions tax – as a deterrent to a particular type of consumption.

Certainly this is an issue that will have to be considered, and it may be that retailers may have to revisit this part of the arguement. It is an issue that I think will have to be addressed and resolved. What is the real purpose of the move – a fairer taxation system or protectionism for local retailers.

Conclusion

I don’t offer any solutions. That is not the function of this post. Rather it has been to identify some issues that may need to be considered to those who will participate in the debate.

But there is something else that this discussion emphasises. I have written on a number of occasions about the qualities of the Digital Paradigm and how these qualities challenge our assumptions about information, its use and its communication. In my view the various qualities of the new Digital Paradigm must be considered in any legal solution in which it is involved. That has been a constant theme in many of my posts on this blog and I hope that future posts will continue to develop that theme.

The IT Countrey Justice

14 July 2013