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Continuing conversation on the Cybercrimes Act

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Over the past two weeks, the Cybercrimes Bill had generated a great deal of interest and reaction. In a piece entitled “Press freedom groups express ‘alarm’ as SVG passes Cybercrime Bill”, Kenton Chance quotes Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves as saying the Opposition wants to use other things as a political battering ram against him and have opposed this bill as part of this effort. I found this very interesting, because opposition to the bill was not limited to the parliamentary Opposition.{{more}} In fact, what was most interesting about this was that an unprecedented number of international and regional human rights bodies and groups, geared to protecting press freedom and freedom of expression, saw it fit to comment on the bill, most of them suggesting review and adjustment or removal of some of its clauses. So, this goes beyond the parliamentary Opposition and has nothing to do with their motives, real or imagined, behind opposition to the bill!

Additionally, the PM indicated that while taking their submissions into account, his responsibility was to Parliament and not to those organizations. Since it is apparent that their comments and suggestions changed little, his dismissal of their concerns, as expressed, raises serious concerns. His statement, though real, says little. The majority ULP parliamentary members are not known for any serious debate on issues, but rather are recognized as rubber stamps. To dismiss in this way the responses to the bill by those organizations, many of them reputable ones, is really not the way to go. What was needed was a thorough review of the bill, outside of the select committee, to seriously consider the different responses to the bill. We are operating in a new digital age in which we are still babes, so the need to tread carefully is paramount. Undoubtedly, we have to deal with the challenges raised with the new communication technology and the growth of social media and to prevent outright abuse, but this has to be done without infringing our human rights, as reflected in freedom of expression and of the press.

Recently a computer technician suggested to me that the bill did not take into account their work. He was worried that very often they are asked to transfer data and this left open all sorts of possibilities for abuse. This is something I had never considered, but he outlined the number of ways in which they could possibly find themselves infringing the law. Another matter came to my attention that suggested how innocent persons could leave themselves open to all sorts of difficulties under the law and also the problems with implementing and managing the law. I had a friend request from someone I know. I accepted and soon after began communicating with the person. I saw no problem with this, especially when the person’s photograph was displayed. Shortly after, something the person said caused me to pause. I decided to phone my friend, only to find out that no friend request was made and the chat never took place. Later, I got another call indicating that a number of persons had experienced the same problem.

One of the issues raised by persons and organi-zations was the vagueness of the definition of cyberbullying. It was suggested that it was not only subjective, but too broad and lent itself to abuse. I am reminded of an issue with the Shakerism Prohibition Act of 1912. The Act left undefined what was Shakerism and gave the magistrate the responsibility to decide what constituted Shakerism in any matter brought before the Court. In 1939, during a debate in the Legislative Council on a motion to repeal the Act, the case of a woman who was arrested under the Act was raised. The lady was suspected of being a Shaker and her house was raided. They found her praying at the side of her sick husband and arrested her. The AG, in reacting to this, said “there was a certain amount of jumping up and noise which would be sufficient to support a conviction under the Ordinance.” The point I am hinting at here is that the vagueness of what constitutes cyberbullying lends itself to abuse.

The growth of social media and the new developments in communication technology have opened up valuable space for public expression and have, in a sense, strengthened democracy. We have to ensure that nothing happens that will curtail these avenues for public dialogue. Even the definition of who is a journalist has to be looked at again with the growth of bloggers and persons who use social media to pass on information and share opinions. We are dealing with a whole new world and really should be treading carefully with any attempts to correct what we might consider abuses. The issue of free expression in a digital age is something that needs to be considered and understood. How can we ensure that persons are not punished for innocent browsing? One of the vexing matters is the access to personal information of persons who might eventually be found not guilty. I am of the view too that the Act leaves itself open to abuse and could be used to silence critics, access their data and stifle expression. What is needed are efforts to strengthen public dialogue, not block it.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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