Feature Article of Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Columnist: Tawiah, Theophilus

Should the Internet be policed in Ghana?

The internet is, and continues to be, the nucleus for information and its importance cannot be overemphasised. It has been a medium for enhancing democracy and information transformation. Regrettably, the digital age has been characterised by abuse, defamation, libel, harassment, racism, hatred and fraud. There are calls by a section of the population for the need to police the internet. In 2007, Kevin Whitrick took his own life over the internet in England. Online chatrooms were criticised after a man was also forced into committing suicide while dozens of users watched live on the internet. Online fraud is on the ascendency, as cyber criminals become sophisticated in their approach.
In the awake of these misuses of the internet, a lot of countries are policing the internet with the view to identifying individuals who fall foul of the law. In this article, the key issues facing the internet will be analysed. Also, the challenges that we will need to surmount should we elect to control it, will also be looked at.

The internet is been used by some users of social network sites such as facebook, twitter and the likes to invade the privacy rights of celebrities, politicians, academics and individuals, particularly defamation. Individuals set up anonymous accounts on these social network sites to defame and attack public officers and other individuals. Invasion of privacy through undesired publicity or mockery can be protected through the tort of defamation. For defamation to be successful it should be a defamatory statement, secondly, it referred to the claimant and finally, the statement must have been published. How seriously should such publication be taken? In my view, even though comments made on the internet constitute publication, the gravity of the comments should be looked at with the lens of a flyer on the wall. Drawing analogy from the case of Paul chambers, he tweeted threat to blow up Doncaster airport. The court concluded that on an objective assessment that the comment was not a genuine threat. However, it has been argued that such efforts to strictly enforce these improper comments will be a threat to freedom of speech guaranteed under law.

Furthermore, with the expansion of our financial industry, banks are becoming more competitive by offering innovative products to its customers. Online banking is not very common with individual bank accounts holders; it is regular with institutions and inter-bank transactions. As the online banking widens, ordinary bank accounts holders will enjoy it. This will call for stringent security and risk management checks by the banks, to ensure that customers’ monies are not stolen by unscrupulous internet thieves. On June 26, 2012 McAfee reported that cyber criminals have attempted to steal a total of $2.5 billion across European, Latin American and North American financial institutions using automated systems. Do we have the technology to ensure that these online frauds do not occur at our banks? Banks tend to have Compliance and Risk Management departments which ensure that banks compliance with international and domestic laws and for detecting fraud and errors at the bank. Nonetheless, stringent monitoring controls for prevention and detection of fraud and errors with internet transactions will be needed.
Should we join other jurisdictions which have begun policing the internet, the question will be who should be left to police it, to ensure that our privacy is not invaded. Should it be the police or an independent body that should be entrusted with such duties? In countries that have gone ahead of us in this respect, it is the police that monitors activities on the internet that yield to abuse of the laws. It has been argued that the police are the first agent of the state in the criminal justice system and are well able to understand the issues of social crimes because of their experiences. However, the police lacked the resources to enable them meet these herculean tasks. Policing the internet will require sophisticated information technology equipments and gadgets, to match the changing scheme of internet fraudsters and abusers. Professionalism of the police will be required to enhance public confidence, which has been lost because of their dealings in the past.
Policing the internet is arguably a smack of fundamental human rights of individuals in the country. Article 18(2) of the 1992 Constitution establishes that everyone has a right to privacy. Also, the right to privacy is in case law as shield but not as sword in tort. Article 21(1) (a) of the 1992 Constitution gives the right to freedom of speech and expression. The right to privacy and the right to freedom of speech and expression are not absolute rights because under certain circumstances they may be interfered with by the state. Your right to privacy may be justifiably invaded because of another’s right to freedom of expression. The police monitoring activities on the internet will apparently invade our privacy. In the interest of national security it may become necessary for such interferences. What constitute national security should call for persuasive explanation to warrant any interference. Lord Hoffman said, ‘’The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these’’. However, there should be a balancing act in the exercising of these rights. This balancing act can only be determined in a court of law.
In the quest to control the internet, it should be easy to trace internet protocols (IP) of users. Most domestic users use modems and internet cafes to surf the internet. Companies and other organizations can be easily monitored because of their servers. With the SIM registration required by customers of telecommunication networks, it will be quite easy to monitor activities of modem users. Connecting the internet in ways other than domestic IPs, such as university and libraries servers will remain an issue unless users are giving constant unique identifiable code for accessing the internet, then when an issue arises, it can be traced to such IP address. Also, could our police be able to compel twitter, facebook and YouTube to disclose personal details of users on their sites? It has been suggested that these organisations are not likely to cooperate with our institutions, in the same manner as done to institutions in the advanced countries. This is because these organisations do not respect our institutions and can sometime be apparently biased.
In conclusion, the internet even though is earth-shattering, it is been used to invade privacy and for perpetrating fraud by some individuals.
The foregoing evidence, while raising concerns about internet abuses, questions the capacity of the police to provide the surveillance required to stamp out such abuses.
Policing the internet will be a threat to the fundamental civil liberties of citizens because certain institutions lack the professionalism and the resources for such duty.
The police is not well remunerated, so mandating them with such task may lead to sacrifice of our private life at the altar perceived corruption among some policemen.
Internet users and journalists should be self responsible in their comments on social networks to avoid tortious action being brought against them.
Privacy rights and fraud to some extent can be private matter and should not override our interest to permit such invasion of privacy by the state. Individuals and institutions should put security controls in place to ensure that they are not abused by other internet users. The laws on these areas can be invoked to address such wrongs.
Interference with state institutions is very mundane, so entrusting the police to monitor the internet may be used for witch hunting of political enemies.
Policing the internet should have no place in our democratic dispensation.
By: Theophilus Tawiah