Controversial ECT Bill discussions come to an end

Parliament`s Portfolio Committee on Communications is to conclude its discussions on the Electronic Communications and Transactions (ECT) Bill today, and a final draft of the law is to come to a vote on Friday.

Although a final draft with the amendments made by the committee is not yet available, many of the more controversial elements of the Bill are expected to remain unchanged. These include registration of cryptography providers and government control of the .za domain name system.

The Bill has come to sudden public notice because of the latter. On Friday the Democratic Alliance issued a statement that SA faces the "possibility of being isolated - literally cut off - from the World Wide Web" because of the Bill.

In its initial published form, the ECT Bill in great detail describes how a government body is to be set up to handle the .za domain system. The body would be controlled by communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri through a board of directors appointed by her.

During the weekend, Andile Ngcaba, director-general of the Department of Communications, said an amended version would see an intermediary panel inserted into the process. The minister would appoint the independent panel, which would in turn appoint the directors of the domain authority.

But current .za administrator Mike Lawrie, who has controlled the domain since its inception, has vowed not to hand control over to a government he believes not technically capable of handling the fragile system. He has warned that domain names, and e-mail addresses, that use the popular suffix could "go dark" due to improper management.

Lawrie has, since 1998, been involved in setting up an organisation to take over from him. Such a body, Namespace SA, was formed in September last year. Government was invited to participate in the body and appoint representatives to its board, but declined.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is responsible for globally overseeing the domain name system, requires the consent of the current administrator for any re-delegation of responsibility.

Cryptography, digital signatures

Another provision that has drawn fire is a requirement that any cryptography product used in SA be registered with the Department of Communications, so that the vendor can assist law enforcement officials in cracking encryption when needed.

Anyone supplying a cryptography product not registered would face a prison sentence of up to two years.

Cryptography experts have pointed out that many pieces of popular software, such as the Windows operating systems and most Linux distributions, are packaged with or contain embedded cryptography software.

The Bill, in its draft form, differentiates between traditional digital signatures and "advanced electronic signatures", digital signatures that would be officially recognised by government. While the Bill would give digital documentation legal recognition equal to that of paper documents, advanced signatures would have to be used where the law requires a signature.

The differentiation has been criticised by some, but welcomed by Mark Shuttleworth, whose company Thawte issued digital signatures through a "web of trust".

"It is important to have a diversity of models," Shuttleworth says, predicting that regulated signature systems may become inflexible, but an unregulated market will continue developing dynamically.

The ECT Bill must still go the National Assembly, which is expected to pass it unchanged, and the National Council of Provinces, which has the power to reject or amend it. It is due to be signed into law by president Thabo Mbeki in early July.

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