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The price of freedom is eternal vigilance

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Some Vincentians may be familiar with the name Edward Snowden. Right now he is in Russia, effectively beyond the reach of American law. Not too many places in the world can shield you from the extra- territorial judicial power claimed by the USA. But Russia can and that’s why Snowden sought shelter in the land of Putin.

Snowden is correct to seek shelter, because he broke American law. But in doing so, he exposed an American electronic eavesdropping programme run by its national security agencies that allowed American agents to listen in to any telephone conversation or read any email sent by any Americans or anyone in the world every single minute of the day. {{more}}Until Snowden’s exposé, few Americans were aware of this extraordinary invasion of their privacy committed by their government.

The resulting public outrage has compelled the American government to place limits on the surveillance regime constructed by its spymasters. And in a remarkable turnaround, the former Attorney General Eric Holder, who charged Snowden with treason and other crimes, has admitted that Snowden should be treated with some lenience, because although he broke existing American law, he advanced the public good of the USA.

What does this story have to do with St Vincent and the Grenadines?

Well, at this very moment, our Government is in the midst of a process to construct a Cybercrime Bill that would do several good things. It deals with the scourge of child pornography that is now part of the Internet age. It criminalizes the invasion of privacy and the non-consensual indecent exposure of the human body for prurient interests. It disciplines those who would use electronic means to steal peoples’ property (data) for nefarious purposes. All these are good and necessary interventions into a domain of modern life that is now rife with abuse. The policing of such activities is therefore a critical component of the infrastructure of security that our Government must put in place if it is to offer to Vincentians the fullest protections needed in the Wild West of the Internet.

The Bill as proposed, however, is not without its imperfections, to wit, its threat to impose a seven-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine on any person who “intentionally and without lawful excuse or justification, obtains for himself or for another person, computer data which is not meant for him or the other person and which is protected against unauthorized access…” The problem lies with this simple question: ‘What if we have our own Edward Snowden, a person who exposes government corruption or individual wrongdoing through his unlawful access to electronic data?’

The response of the US government to Snowden’s breach of US laws offers two pathways. First, we should note that none of the news organizations, who received the data were charged with any crime. This point is absolutely crucial. News organizations exist to collect and publish information which is in the public interest and should not be held criminally liable for simply doing their job. The Cybercrime Bill as currently proposed, offers no such clarity and some prosecutors may in fact hold that the recipients of such data, including news organizations are equally guilty as the Edward Snowden who gave them the data. Clearly the American legal system and the legal systems of the world’s democracies reject this overly broad application of the law.

The reason for this is simple: such an application of the law would have a chilling effect on freedom of the press. Our Government has taken genuine pride in making the case that St Vincent and the Grenadines is regularly ranked as having one of the freest presses in the world. And that is correct. But without a clear legal protection for the press that receives and publishes information that comes from multiples sources, many of which may be protected and classified, we damage the very thing that we hold most dear: the freedom that others aspire to.

It is therefore crucial that our Government engage our media in how best we can advance our shared goals of reducing and prosecuting criminal activity on the Internet, yet at the same time protect the freedom of the press that is vital to our democracy. We are vigilant in this. It is the price of our freedom.

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