Reporters Without Borders today denounced as a threat to freedom of expression in the current Zimbabwean political climate a government demand that Internet service providers (ISPs) monitor the content of their customers’ e-mail messages.
The state telecommunications monopoly Telone is asking ISPs to sign commercial contracts that ask them to take "all necessary measures" to prevent the transmission of illegal material online. The vague language has raised fears that the government, which has a bad press freedom record, wants to increase its political control over the Internet.
"Racial hatred and child-pornography on the Internet should be fought, but it is very important this battle does not reduce the right of Internet users to express themselves openly," the press freedom organisation said. "The proposed phrasing of the contracts opens the way to abuse of this right."
The contracts say "the Provider shall ensure that objectionable, obscene, unauthorised or any other content, messages or communications infringing copyright, intellectual property right and international & domestic cyber laws, in any form or inconsistent with the laws of Zimbabwe, are not carried in his network, the ISP should take all necessary measures to prevent it", in effect asking them to monitor all online traffic, especially e-mail, to spot illegal content. This puts an impossible burden on ISPs, who are also being asked to judge for themselves what is legal and what is not, when only a court should be doing that..
The proposed contract also says ISPs must disclose to Telone and the government the origin of questionable e-mail messages. But this measure, sometimes justified in legal investigations, must have watertight guarantees built in to protect the privacy of personal messages. Zimbabwe has no law about how and when such messages can be intercepted or information about an Internet user handed over to the authorities.
The supreme court ruled in early March that the Post and Telecommunications Act (PTC), which gives wide powers to the government to spy on phone and Internet communications, was unconstitutional. Since no law adequately guarantees Internet privacy inside Zimbabwe, it is dangerous for ISPs to operate under a contract as vague as the one proposed.
Zimbabwe comes 141st (out of 166 countries) in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index and its president, Robert Mugabe, is considered a "predator of press freedom" by the organisation. (see www.internet.rsf.org)