State cuts operators slack on RICA

By Leon Engelbrecht, ITWeb senior writer
Johannesburg, 02 Sept 2008

Mobile phone operators will have at least 18 months to register all prepaid handsets in SA under a new deal from the Department of Justice.

The department has been pushing for tough amendments to the Regulation of Interception of Communication and Provision of Communication-related Information Act (RICA) in order to fight crime.

But the legal changes threatened to end international roaming in SA and turn many South Africans into criminals.

The amendments stalled in the National Council of Provinces' Security and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee last November, after the police and justice department had a fall out over which amendments were really necessary, with the latter pushing a hard line.

The committee has now approved a new set of changes containing watered-down registration requirements. These will give mobile phone operators 18 months to register the details of the owners of prepaid handsets and SIM cards from a date to be determined and proclaimed by the Presidency.

The requirement for foreign visitors to register their SIM cards and handsets has fallen by the wayside after all references to roaming were removed.

A Vodacom official present at the committee's deliberations said now that service providers knew what needed to be registered and verified, they would need about six months' notice to put systems in place.

According to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, Vodacom managing executive for regulatory affairs Pakamile Pongwana said 1 April would be an "ideal" date for registration to start.

Senior state law adviser Sarel Robbertse countered that the registration needed to be implemented as quickly as possible, as it would help law enforcement agencies in combating crime.

Service providers will, therefore, be required to report to Parliament every six months on progress made with registration and the challenges encountered.

IDC researcher Richard Hurst says there were 42 million SIM cards active in SA at the end of 2007, of which at least 92% were prepaid - and thus subject to registration under the new amendments.

ICT lawyer Kerron Edmunson says RICA "is a critical piece of legislation" which has not received proper attention from government in the last two years.

She says there is still no proper explanatory memorandum explaining the purpose and implications of the Bills, "so it is difficult for the man in the street, let alone legal experts, to opine on whether or not it is likely to achieve its purpose".

Meanwhile, the trade and industry portfolio committee in the National Assembly has adopted the Companies Act that will establish a new business law regime. The new Act, when passed by Parliament, will allow - among other things - for the wider use of ICT and e-documents in business.

Related stories:
Govt committee questions Bills
Draft law to curb cellphone fencing
Political squabbling delays RICA