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Is Samoa’s cybercrime regulation protecting its people or quashing dissent?

Source: East Asia Forum

Pacific island countries are continuously working towards strengthening legislation on cybercrime. Samoa in particular is currently working with the European Union and Australia’s Attorney General’s Office to update legislation relating to cybercrime and to enhance public awareness. New legislation aims not only at protecting government communication networks from cyberattacks but also at prosecuting private organisations and end users in Samoa who use computers and smart devices on a daily basis for malicious purposes.

The Pacific was one of the last regions in the world to be colonised by the internet. This colonisation has been slow but some countries like Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Samoa now have submarine (fibre) connections that provide high-speed internet and wide coverage. This has led to the rapid growth of internet and social media users in these countries. The shift provides greater access to information for businesses and governments, which allows them to enhance service provision and delivery. But it brings with it concerns for both users and society.

Users do not always understand the reach, power and consequences of inappropriate internet use. In 2014, a 27-year-old man was found guilty in a Samoan court and sentenced to 11 years in prison for uploading naked images to Facebook. He was also found guilty of rape and unlawful sexual acts. These acts have always been illegal but the internet and social media provided new platforms for this man to disseminate his images widely. Vulnerable users, including children, were exposed to these images. Following the incident, Samoa’s 2013 Crimes Act was updated to include voyeurism as a new crime.

Limited control of content, easy accessibility and the speed at which information can be diffused on social media is creating new challenges for states. Users can easily create fake identities and profiles and often other users share these images and videos on their pages or with their friends. This creates issues for legislating, particularly with respect to whom the government should prosecute and how it should prosecute them.

Social media has also fuelled hate speech and cyberbullying and it has created avenues for overpowering depth of freedom of speech. This is a growing global trend: the anonymity of social media gives individuals greater freedom to say, post and reveal things they would not say to a person face-to-face or if their identity was known. Earlier this year, the Samoan Minister of Communications and Information Technology highlighted that Section 219 of the Crimes Act 2013 could be used to prosecute individuals who harass others using the internet. Section 219 is titled ‘Harassment utilising means of electronic communication’ and carries a maximum penalty of five years. The scope of harassment in the act includes an intention to coerce, intimidate, harass and cause substantial emotional distress.

In late 2017, the government also re-introduced the Criminal Libel Law, which was abolished in 2013. The law was brought back to target a growing number of ‘ghost writers’ who use fake names and profiles on social media and blogs to criticise politicians and prominent individuals in Samoan society.

The most famous and popular of these ‘ghost writers’ is Ole Palemia, who has a Facebook page, Twitter account and blog. Ole Palemia’s posts are highly critical of the government, especially Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi. The Prime Minister has commented that the posts by Ole Palemia are false, defamatory and disruptive to the country.

While Samoa has a number of provisions in existing legislation to deal with cybercriminals, it is working on strengthening these legislations to meet, regulate and prosecute cybercriminals. The main challenge will be enforcement. Samoa’s local police force must be equipped with appropriate skills to track down these ‘ghost writers’. In lieu of such a cybercrime unit, the Prime Minister claims that the government has 4,500 hackers around the country who have been tasked with bringing these ‘ghost writers’ and enemies of the state to justice. But even if these ‘ghost writers’ were identified, it is highly likely that they reside outside of Samoa. The question of how the Samoan government will enforce the law and prosecute these individuals has not been answered.

Some other Pacific countries have gone well beyond cybercrime regulation in controlling their citizens’ online activity. Nauru banned Facebook in 2015, claiming to be protecting its people from sexual predators and online harassment. But members of the opposition claim it was an attempt to prevent content created by asylum seekers from Nauru’s detention centres from being published on social media. Nauru lifted the ban early in 2018. The Papua New Guinean government has also stated that it will be banning Facebook for a month to conduct research on fake users of Facebook. But others claim that this is yet another attempt by the PNG government to quash dissent. Increasing regulation may not always be for the benefit of the people but rather a means by which governments can control the population and the information made available to it.

While the internet has its problems, it has also shown its potential to give voice to the previously voiceless and to be a conduit for public expression. It can be a medium for exposing corruption and engender a greater sense of accountability among those who govern.

Read more at East Asia Forum