Mauritius: A ruse to rein in civil liberties?

There is quite a commotion and rightly so around the recently made public consultation paper on social media in Mauritius. I

n fact, the paper was dropped into public space with no public announcement (it does not even feature prominently on the ICTA's website) and a relatively short time frame for feedback from the public - especially judging the nature and scope of the changes proposed. Reading through the paper one is made aware of the purpose to rein in and ultimately control important aspects of social media in Mauritius. In fact, this comes on the heels of an already highly contested amendment brought to ICTA's Section 46 in 2018. Having said that, we are all aware and concerned about the times when harmful and offensive content is peddled and amplified on a number of social media platforms. We are equally conscious that there is the need for some form or system of monitoring of online content. However, what is crucial is that this is done in a consensual and engaged manner where all stakeholders have sufficient time to offer their inputs. What we do not need is a public consultation as a guise for insidious purpose.

Social media: The temptation to rein in

Social media metrics have shot up dramatically in the last five years in Mauritius with Facebook leading with some 850,000 account holders in 2020. What is worth shining light on is the general election of 2019 saw a surge in activity where politicians and their supporters extensively used the platform to communicate, to score points and of course to mudsling each other. It is equally interesting to note that Facebook was used as an important rallying platform following the MV Wakashio oil spill that cumulated in the two momentous protest marches of August and September 2020. Today, social media plat- forms, especially Facebook, have become the preferred site for live broadcast of politicians. So, the question we might be tempted to ask - is this causing unrest among those in power who no doubt realise the limitations of their propaganda box - the MBC?

Big Brother State: opacity, impunity and non-accountability

Confronted with this proposal to rein in, control and ultimately regulate citizens' civil liberties, we are faced with a government that champions a culture of opacity, impunity and non-accountability. The latest episodes speak volumes. The multiple times that the Speaker has ordered out opposition MPs, refused PQs that might embarrass the executive and his unequivocal bias towards the ruling majority. The most recent report from the National Audit Office eloquently highlights this culture of opacity and non-accountability. The demand to regulate and control social media is juxtaposed with the refusal to pay heed to the importance of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Why is there no interest in having a consultation paper on an FOIA? Why are we bent on paying billions of Mauritian rupees for the 'Safe City Project' where thousands of cameras can easily scrutinise citizens' movement and in the process turning it into a surveillance State? These are questions that need answers.

Decryption, re-encryption and archived for inspection:

The beginning of the end There are number of sections in the consultation paper that offer a chilling read and we must realise if implemented might spell the end of a free and unfettered social media. Clearly spelt out is the following - that "it is important to segregate from all incoming and outgoing Internet traffic in Mauritius, social media traffic, which will then need to be decrypted, re-encrypted and archived for inspection purposes as and when required". Of equal concern is the following paragraph - 'this, in turn, implies that all Facebook traffic (both incoming and outgoing for Mauritius) will need to be decrypted and archived. In the proposed technical model, only social media traffic will need to transit via a filtering set up for decryption, archiving, inspection (as and when required) and re-encryption with the technical toolset self-signed digital certificate".

Blame the Big Techs

There seems to be a clear strategy of 'blaming' the Big Techs for data theft and infringement and in the process putting the case for regulation and filtering of social media traffic. Also, the proposal of instituting a local 'regulatory and operational framework' as none of the Big Techs have offices in Mauritius might have a spurious intention of 'wanting to rein in' social media ecosystem. Do we need protection from Big Techs or from a controlling verging on autocratic State? Institutional autonomy and independence? On a numerous occasions whilst reading through the consultation paper the following crops up - "in a fair, expeditious, autonomous and independent manner". Will ICTA be able to deliver on this? Does it have the necessary credibility to do so? We are all acutely aware of how institutions are at the behest of the executive robbing them of their autonomy, independence and credibility. Cases abound with the the IBA, ICAC and ICTA itself! These institutions are stuffed with political nominees who essentially dance to their political masters' tune. So, when the repeated use of words such as fair, independent, transparent and public confidence throughout the consultation paper is used, one is highly skeptical. Also the proposal of two units - the National Digital Ethics Committee and the Technical Enforcement Unit which will be at the centre of the 'regulatory and operational framework' from the onset cast doubt as to their ability to operate in a fair, independent and autonomous manner.

Is statuary regulation the solution?

One of the questions that was included for public consultation signals the potentially intrusive nature of this whole exercise - "Can you propose an alternative technical toolset of a less intrusive nature which will enable the proposed operational framework to operate in an expeditious, autonomous and independent manner from the need to request technical data from social media administrators?" Ever since the existence and subsequent expansion of the Internet there have been multiple attempts to regulate what some observers consider the wild wild west (www) and in the process try and cull at times its nefarious effects. However, rarely has the solution been in the form of statutory regulation (imposed as opposed to voluntary). There is a general consensus that the most appropriate form of regulation is self-regulation. Let the community auto regulate itself. Let us invest in social media literacy instead of social media statutory control. What we need to preserve at all costs are our precious civil liberties because once they are eroded, they rarely come back.

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