Unrealistic to jail and fine SA internet users for 'harmful messages', says expert

The Cybercrimes Act was signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa recently. PIcture: African News Agency(ANA)

The Cybercrimes Act was signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa recently. PIcture: African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jun 8, 2021


Cape Town - An expert has slammed the newly-enacted Cybercrimes Act, saying that jailing and fining internet users for, among other things, “harmful messages” is unrealistic.

The Cybercrimes Act was signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa recently.

It was first proposed by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development in 2015, and was introduced in the National Assembly in 2017.

Cyber security expert Professor Bruce Watson, head of Information Science at Stellenbosch University, said even though many would agree with what the government was trying to achieve, he thought the act was widly unrealistic.

He said the notion of harmful messages was vaguely defined, and it would be interesting to see what the courts said about it.

“Of course, in this country we have very strong crimen injuria laws, and if those are applied directly on social media, a lot of people can be charged,” said Watson.

“When I say wildly unrealistic things, it reflects a very deep misunderstanding of how cyberspace works. For example, most social media - Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, but also direct like WhatsApp - have some form of security for secrecy, but they do not have security for ensuring that messages are signed. So someone will be able to very quickly deny they sent the message.”

He said getting evidence to prove it would be immensely difficult and costly, and required the co-operation of those companies.

Watson said there was no hope that the government would build up the capacity to investigate, and the police were already overworked and under-equipped.

He said the notion of “harmful” could be used to suppress political dissent, which according to him, was always dangerous.

THE NEW CYBERCRIMES ACT AND WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW President Cyril Ramaphosa signed into effect the new Cyber Crimes...

Posted by Ulrich Roux & Associates onFriday, 4 June 2021

A group of law experts from law firm Webber Wentzel welcomed the move in the fight against the ever-increasing online and internet-based crime.

Four experts from the firm - Peter Grealy, Nozipho Mngomezulu, Karl Blom and Wendy Tembedza - weighed in on the bill.

The experts said cybercriminals would hopefully feel the ramifications of the new law, which criminalises various types of cybercrimes, including illegally accessing a computer system or intercepting data, cyber fraud, cyber forgery, unlawfully acquiring a password or access code, cyber extortion, and theft of incorporeal (intangible) property.

They said the wide ambit of jurisdiction created by the Cybercrimes Act meant that the courts would have the power to try persons who were not South African citizens, as well as persons who committed crimes in other countries.

“The National Police Commissioner is required to establish or designate an office within existing structures of the police, to be known as the designated Point of Contact.”

In a statement, the four said that office would be responsible for assisting with proceedings or investigations into a cybercrime.

“The police are given extensive search and seizure powers under the Cybercrimes Act, including, in some instances, the power to search and seize without a search warrant.”