As debate continues in the U.S. and Europe over how to regulate social media, a number of countries—such as India and Turkey—have imposed stringent rules that threaten free speech, while others, such as Indonesia, are considering them. Now, a new proposal to amend Mauritius’ Information and Communications Technologies Act (ICTA) with provisions to install a proxy server to intercept otherwise secure communications raises serious concerns about freedom of expression in the country.
Mauritius, a democratic parliamentary republic with a population just over 1.2 million, has an Internet penetration rate of roughly 68% and a high rate of social media use. The country’s Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression but, in recent years, advocates have observed a backslide in online freedoms.
In 2018, the government amended the ICTA, imposing heavy sentences—as high as ten years in prison—for online messages that “inconvenience” the receiver or reader. The amendment was in turn utilized to file complaints against journalists and media outlets in 2019.
In 2020, as COVID-19 hit the country, the government levied a tax on digital services operating in the country, defined as any service supplied by “a foreign supplier over the internet or an electronic network which is reliant on the internet; or by a foreign supplier and is dependent on information technology for its supply.”
The latest proposal to amend the ICTA has raised alarm bells amongst local and international free expression advocates, as it would enable government officials who have established instances of “abuse and misuse” to block social media accounts and track down users using their IP addresses.
The amendments are reminiscent of those in India and Turkey in that they seek to regulate foreign social media, but differ in that Mauritius—a far smaller country—lacks the ability to force foreign companies to maintain a local presence. In a paper for a consultation of the amendments, proponents argue:
Legal provisions prove to be relatively effective only in countries where social media platforms have regional offices. Such is not the case for Mauritius. The only practical solution in the local context would be the implementation of a regulatory and operational framework which not only provides for a legal solution to the problem of harmful and illegal online content but also provides for the necessary technical enforcement measures required to handle this issue effectively in a fair, expeditious, autonomous and independent manner.
While some of the concerns raised in the paper—such as the fact that social media companies do not sufficiently moderate content in the country’s local language—are valid, the solutions proposed are disproportionate.
A Change.org petition calling on local and international supporters to oppose the amendments notes that “Whether human … or AI, the system that will monitor, flag and remove information shared by users will necessarily suffer from conscious or unconscious bias. These biases will either be built into the algorithm itself, or will afflict those who operate the system.”
Most concerning, however, is that authorities wish to install a local/proxy server that impersonates social media networks to fool devices and web browsers into sending secure information to the local server instead of social media networks, effectively creating an archive of the social media information of all users in Mauritius before resending it to the social media networks’ servers. This plan fails to mention how long the information will be archived, or how user data will be protected from data breaches.
Local free expression advocates are calling on the ICTA authorites to “concentrate their efforts in ethically addressing concerns made by citizens on posts that already exist and which have been deemed harmful.” Supporters are encouraged to sign the Change.org petition or submit comment to the open consultation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org before May 5, 2021.