- Internet service providers (ISPs) in Zimbabwe have been ordered to spy on their customers, including the monitoring of so-called "illegal content" of e-mails. In addition to creating a new tool of censorship, this places "an impossible burden" on internet providers, the industry holds.
The state telecommunications monopoly TelOne has asked internet service providers to sign commercial contracts that oblige them to take "all necessary measures" to prevent the transmission of illegal material online. The vague language in the contracts has raised fears that the government, which has a poor press freedom record, is seeking to increase its political control over the internet.
The contracts stipulate that internet providers must ensure that "objectionable, obscene, unauthorised" or all other material that infringes on copyright, intellectual property rights or foreign and local internet laws does not appear on their networks.
This in practical terms means the internet service providers must monitor all traffic, especially e-mail traffic, putting an immense burden on them. They are also being asked to judge for themselves what is legal and what is not.
The proposed contract also says these companies must disclose to TelOne and the government the origin of questionable e-mail messages. This measure is quite unique as most countries build in guarantees to protect the privacy of personal messages, only allowing the disclosure of private correspondence during certain legal investigations and always following a court order.
Zimbabwe however has no law regulating how and when such messages can be intercepted, or when information about an internet user can be handed over to the authorities. In early March 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that the Post and Telecommunications Act (PTC), which gives wide powers to the government to spy on telephone and Internet communications, was unconstitutional.
The new measure by Zimbabwean authorities has caused the rage of organisations promoting the freedom of expression. The Paris-based group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today denounced this government demand as "a threat to freedom of expression in the country's current political climate."
- Since no law adequately guarantees Internet privacy in Zimbabwe, RSF believes it would be dangerous for internet service providers to operate under a contract as vague as the one proposed, the group said in a statement today. RSF also finds it worrying that internet providers should rule for themselves what may be illegal, "when only a court should be doing that."
- It is necessary to fight such things as racial hatred and child pornography on the internet, but it is very important that this does not reduce the right of internet users to express themselves openly, the group said. "The proposed phrasing of the contracts opens the way to abuse of this right."
Zimbabwe already has among the lowest possible rankings regarding press freedom and freedom of expression, conducted by several rights groups. Harare authorities further regularly violently crack down on the country's opposition.
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