The need to protect children from the dangers of the Internet and social media is not an issue on which there should be any contention. The same holds true for the introduction of safeguards against cyberbullying, cybercrimes such as malware attacks, hacking, revenge porn, and violent threats.
All this is contained in the Cybercrime Bill 2023 and there is general agreement on the need to modernise the legal framework to accommodate the ever-expanding virtual world which can be as dangerous as the real one.
However, Barbadians appear extremely cynical of the intentions behind the bill in which the administration has combined other areas that people believe will trample on their right to speak on issues.
They are worried that the threat of criminal prosecution bound up in Section 19 of the bill, imposing a fine of $70 000 and up to seven years in prison, is meant to intimidate those who want to criticise the government and high-profile members of this society.
The public is particularly fearful that the vague language of the bill where speech or content that is deemed “offensive, pornographic, indecent, vulgar, profane, obscene or of a menacing character or causes any such data to be so sent; for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, embarrassment, insult, injury, humiliation, intimidation, hatred, anxiety or causes substantial emotional distress to that person” could lead to arrest and being hauled before the court as a result of the sweeping language in the proposed law.
Frankly, transmitting “offensive” content on the Internet intended to cause someone anxiety, embarrassment, insult, annoyance, inconvenience, humiliation, and intimidation could land thousands of Barbadians before the court.
One must ask the question, can the state really expect to enforce the proposed stringent law in an age of WhatsApp, TikTok, Instagram and a host of other messaging platforms?
What happens if a person makes the same “offensive” remarks while standing at the top of Broad Street in Bridgetown, while a crowd is gathered? Is he or she likely to be arrested if the sensibilities of a person are inflamed?
These are legitimate questions and concerns which ought to be addressed.
The Internet and social media, for all their faults and dangers, have become an equaliser for the voiceless and average citizens in societies across the globe.
Social media, in many countries, is the only outlet against government repression and tyranny in countries like China, Iran and Russia. Protesters in Hong Kong and several Arab and Asian states use social media as subversive tools against the overreach of the State.
The successful Black Lives Matter protests in the United States that spread around the world were organised online. It was social media that was the safe space to organise for people seeking fundamental political and economic change and led to the Arab Spring that started in 2010.
If social media and the Internet were around in the 1930s when Clement Payne and others were organising protests and this Cybercrime Bill was around, the organisers would have been intercepted and hauled before the courts for distributing “offensive” content meant to cause annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, embarrassment, insult, injury, humiliation, intimidation, hatred, and anxiety.
There are going to be times when it will be necessary to disrupt society and make those in various centres of power uncomfortable.
The country has no freedom of information legislation, unlike our neighbours in Trinidad and Tobago. Citizens still operate in an environment of extremely conservative defamation laws that even allow the estate of a dead person to sue for defamation within a certain time.
While most Barbadians applaud the government for the introduction of laws to protect persons from actions such as cyberbullying, pornography and defamation, they believe, parts of the Cybercrime Bill go way too far and serve to intimidate through criminal prosecution.
We cannot turn back the hands of time and we must be careful that we do not go so far east that we end up going west.