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Internet firms ordered to spy on customers

(RSF/IFEX) - RSF has denounced the government's demand that Internet service providers (ISPs) monitor the content of their customers' e-mail messages as a threat to freedom of expression in the country's current political climate.

The state telecommunications monopoly TelOne has asked ISPs 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.

"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 organisation said. "The proposed phrasing of the contracts opens the way to abuse of this right."

The contracts stipulate that ISPs 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 means the ISPs must monitor all traffic, especially e-mail traffic, putting an impossible burden on them. They 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, while sometimes justified in legal investigations, must have watertight guarantees built in to protect the privacy of personal messages. Zimbabwe 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. Since no law adequately guarantees Internet privacy in Zimbabwe, RSF believes it would be dangerous for ISPs to operate under a contract as vague as the one proposed.

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