Controversial cybersecurity bill gets Cabinet approval

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Johannesburg - Cabinet has given the green light to a cybercrimes and cybersecurity bill that has sparked criticism over its potential to curb a free internet.

In a statement about its last meeting of the year, Cabinet said it had approved the bill which seeks “combatting cybercrime, establishing capacity to deal with cybersecurity and protecting critical information infrastructures”.

The bill creates about 50 new offences for crimes such as hacking, using financial information to commit an offence, unlawful interception of data, computer related forgery, extortion, terrorist activity and distribution of ‘harmful’ data messages.

Penalties range from one year to ten years imprisonment or between R1m to R10m fines.

The bill further gives the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the State Security Agency (SSA) powers to investigate, search, access and seize the likes of computers, databases or networks, provided they have a search warrant.

A government gazette published on Friday, December 9 said Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Michael Masutha intends introducing the Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill 2017 in the National Assembly “shortly”.

“It [the bill] contributes towards building safer communities as envisaged in the National Development Plan,” said Cabinet in its statement.

“In this regard, government is committed to put in place measures to build confidence and trust in the secure use of Information Communications Technologies,” said Cabinet.

READ: Cybercrimes bill criminalises range of lawful activities - R2K

The bill, though, has sparked concerns from several quarters over the last year, with legal experts questioning parts of it.

Late last year, the likes of the Right2Know campaign and the Committee to Protect Journalists raised concerns about the bill's potential impact on the free flow of information online.

Meanwhile, law firm Michalsons, in a note published late last year, said that the bill is needed but questioned certain parts of it, especially regarding its possible impact on freedom of expression

“For example, if you do anything with state information that is classified as ‘secret’, you could go to jail for 10 years without the possibility of even a fine,” said Michalsons.

“So a journalist who possesses state secret information to write an exposé would probably be committing an offence. The same goes for whistleblowers as the bill does not have a public interest defence, or any journalistic exclusions.

“These exclusions are necessary to promote freedom of expression and should have been included in the bill,” Michalsons added.

ALSO READ: Concerns raised over SA cybersecurity law

Section 17 of the bill has also previously been flagged up as problematic.

This section seeks to prohibit the dissemination of data messages that advocate, promote or incite hate, discrimination or violence.

Contraventions of this part of the bill could result in a fine or imprisonment not exceeding two years.

“On the face of it, this seems a necessary thing to criminalise. However in the current social media age, many links, video, or articles are shared online to raise awareness or comment on an issue,” said Michalsons.

“Sections like this illustrate the tension between protecting freedom of expression and national security concerns,” Michalsons added.

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