The case for Internet regulation

The case for Internet regulation
Published: 16 August 2016 (777 Views)
The Internet is not only a conduit of nefarious activities but a domain of sophisticated crime which any nation would need to regulate. Other countries have already addressed this by putting in place some kind of governance to that problem and Zimbabwe is only getting there now.

A few months ago a Zimbabwean social worker in Britain was convicted of possessing and distributing animal and child p-rnography through his phone. He was given a suspended prison sentence.

His side of the story was these images were sent through the WhatsApp medium. Some he had deleted, some he forwarded, some he just opened and left them on his phone. What he was convicted of is what can be termed a cyber crime. Many of us unwittingly commit such crimes by forwarding material that can put us in trouble in many Western countries.

A few weeks ago there was panic on a UK-based Zimbabwean Church WhatsApp Group, when one woman shared images of Zimbabwean children being sexually abused. The woman was clearly not a pervert and her intention was a call to prayer for these abused children. For her it was a "Mwari pindirai (Devine intervention)" moment" .

She was so taken aback by the pandemonium she had caused when the registered professionals such as nurses, social workers and doctors on that group went into some frantic frenzy. They thought their careers were over as this type of offence leads to de-registration as one is deemed a risk to vulnerable people. Thankfully this woman meant well but if she was a fiend and in Zimbabwe, prosecutors would have struggled to find a suitable law to prosecute her adequately under.

In a related UK case, in 2012 a footballer of Congolese origin called Fabrice Muamba collapsed and nearly died on the football pitch in front of live television cameras. There were many tweets in support and sympathy. But one university student in Wales known as Liam Stacey tweeted "LOL, F*ck Muamba. He's dead."

This offended a lot of people and they exchanged tweets and Liam's comment degenerated into some racial slur. He was arrested, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to a year in prison for posting offensive comments on Twitter. If he were in Zimbabwe there would have been no law to prosecute him under.

But hopefully this situation won't obtain much longer as Zimbabwe seeks to correct that by promulgating the Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill, whose draft is now at the consultation stage.

This has attracted many comments the majority of which have been derisory and opposing. Some have argued that the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are wanted in America for that very kind of offence. But what makes the people very resistant to this proposed law is its timing.

It comes straight after or still in the climate of hashtags #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka fervour and something, which should have been routine, now appears to be a heavy-handed reaction to citizens cyber political activism. But besides these clearly non-coincidental events, is there anything wrong with having such a law?

The Internet is not only a conduit of nefarious activities but a domain of sophisticated crime which any nation would need to regulate. Other countries have already addressed this by putting in place some kind of governance to that problem and Zimbabwe is only getting there now.

Many who are using the Internet and other Internet-based software and devices for legitimate and responsible activities have no problem with this law. Those who have been victims of Internet harassment and distressing hate speech but having no legal recourse because there is little detail in Zimbabwe's jurisprudence to protect them cannot wait for the law. It is mainly netizens (habitual users of the Internet) whose activities are not quite on the responsible side that would need to consider this proposed law a threat.

There are countries that have chosen to blacklist certain websites and therefore either blocks them or completely shuts them down. Zimbabwe has chosen not to go through this route.

Some countries have chosen to ban or block access to certain topics if one is based locally. Zimbabwe has not chosen to take this route even though that is the route used by both China and other countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Zimbabwe has been slow to react in terms of governance infrastructure. It only published corporate governance rules and regulations recently.

What it doesn't seem to have are the Internet governance which in this case has been made extra-territorial like in many jurisdictions. One of the reasons people are reacting with aversion and hostility is because it appears like a reactive approach with particular targets in mind.

There would be nothing amiss about enacting governance framework for anything including Internet use if the Government had not done it in the current political climate as well as in light of recent public statements by senior officials. There have been contemptuous statements against the Zimbabwean Diaspora community and the next thing that comes out is a threat to extradite. This does not augur well for engagement but that is not to say that the law is retrogressive.

Part II of the draft Bill identifies the cybercrimes such as hacking, which includes illegal access and illegal interception of electronic communication. If anyone were to have their communication illegally accessed or intercepted they would comforted that this law is coming. Because to just think that there was this legal lacuna in the statutes is shocking, to say the least. Child p-rnography is such a heinous crime and there appeared to be no law to adequately prosecute those that manufacture or distribute such images or videos. Surely, those who care for the protection of children would want that law in place as soon as possible.

It is only things like the criminalisation of consensual adult p-rnography, which should really be reconsidered. The law should not turn half of the population of Zimbabwe adults into criminals.

Under normal circumstances every crime should be extraditable as long as the treaty is in place. The US has extradited people to the United States for abusing the internet. There have been more than 60 requests for extradition against UK citizens for their abuse of the Internet including hacking into NASA computers. Some face as high as 60 years in prison.

So there is nothing wrong with extraditing criminals. It is also common cause that the web has posed a very difficult challenge to the Zimbabwean judiciary and law enforcement agents. It is without doubt that there are a lot of shortcomings in the current laws. This has been exposed through a lot of failed efforts to prosecute perceived offences. When one goes through the draft Bill, one would notice that for an extradition to be considered the offending act should have been either committed in Zimbabwe or partially in Zimbabwe, or by a Zimbabwean living in another country which country also considers the offence a crime.

So if someone lives in Britain and commits a cybercrime which is considered a crime in Britain but for whatever reason Britain fails to prosecute them then Zimbabwe can apply for extradition of that individual (subject to the existence of an extradition treaty). Is there anything wrong with this provision?

If Britain considers something a crime why would one cry foul when or if Zimbabwe labels the very same thing a crime? There are other provisions applying to the extradition conditionalities such as that if the equipment used in committing the alleged crime is Zimbabwe based then the Zimbabwean law would be applied. Again on the face of it one cannot see what is wrong with this law if it's not abused by those charged with enforcing it. If anyone thinks there are too many offending bits then it is helpful to everyone to articulate that as a contribution during this consultation period without resorting to sensationalism.

There are search and seizure provisions in the draft Bill. These are pretty much the same elsewhere. There are safeguards there and warrants have to be issued before that happens. The nation is aware of the "Stolen Button/Baton" Warrant. The outcome of that incident clearly indicated that the safeguards put in place would have to pass through a very independent judiciary, which has safeguarded and protected abuse against citizens as cited in the case in point.

Consultation on this Bill is ongoing. Unlike suggestions otherwise every Zimbabwean is a stakeholder in the discourse of their nation. The fact that this is one Bill that will directly affect those in the Diaspora, an approach to simply attack the existence of the Bill without reading it and contributing real substance is not very helpful or productive at the least. There are good analysts in out there who can add value by going through every section and clause of the Bill and forward their contributions to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee.

Because without taking time to read the Bill and pick out the toxic bits and those which cut close to falling foul of the Constitution people are shortchanging themselves.

There is no Western democracy without any an Internet regulating statute or provisions. Zimbabwe is just late to the party.

Anything that has a risk needs governance and regulation. The Internet is one such. It has fraud risks, paedophilia and other depravity related risks. It has serious terrorism and drugs related risks as well as many such. Therefore a sovereign state should regulate and legislate against abuse.

By all means, the State should assert itself in its territories and work with its citizens for the responsible use of the Internet. It would be a sad day if the State enacts laws to protect the citizenry but for the protection of political systems.

- the herald


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