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The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) and the country’s telecoms operators have been at loggerheads over the proposed installation of the US$6.9 million Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS) acquired from Agilis International

The CIRMS has been branded a ‘spy machine’ by the local media following the protracted battle between the operators and the regulator.

The disagreement was sparked when MACRA announced that it would install the CIRMS to ensure that it effectively monitors the quality of service such as ensuring that call drops and poor reception are checked.

The regulator is of the position that the country’s telecommunications companies are ripping off the customer.

Ironically, there was a public out row raising fears that the system could be used for spying on private conversations, text messages and emails. A local politician of the former ruling party, Kennedy Makwangwala, sought an injunction against the telecom operators and the regulator from implementing the roll out of the equipment. The matter is currently being debated in court.

The court intervention came immediately after the four operators Malawi Telecommunications Limited (MRL), Airtel, Telecom Networks Malawi Limited (TNM) and Access Communications Limited (ACL), launched an advert in which they indicated that the regulator was determined to install the CIRMS despite their reservations.

Among other things, the statement concluded, “We, therefore, continue to alert our customers and members of the general public that, once the system is implemented in its current form, the operators will no longer be in a position to safeguard the privacy and confidentiality of customers communication activities.”

Minister of Information, Patricia Kaliati, however, said it was in the interest of government to see the general population of the country benefiting from telecom services of the highest quality possible.

“It’s very unfortunate that some people want to politicise this issue. It’s all about enforcing standards, that’s all,” Kaliati said.

The regulator’s boss, Charles Nsaliwa, was quoted in the local media as saying that it would not want to tolerate poor service delivery in the telecoms sector, saying the customer would eventually be ripped off.

“The local operators should not cause unnecessary public alarm. As a regulator, MACRA already requested [operators] to submit Call Detail Records (CDR) and we handle them with the confidentiality they deserve. What the Communication Act gives us is the mandate to monitor all activities within the sector and to us that is sufficient but with the attitude shown by operators, are we supposed to monitor them through the window?,” queried Nsaliwa.

The MACRA boss then suggested that the operators give in to their demands, but this was met with fierce resistance from the operators who unilaterally ruled out a back down, arguing they will let the courts determine whether there is a cause for alarm or not.

Saulos Chilima, chief executive officer for Airtel Malawi, has said that this battle is not over.

“What we know is that there are court injunctions and, with due respect to the judiciary, we will wait patiently for its determination. If MACRA thinks what we said in the statement is a signal of surrender, they are entitled to their opinion,” Chilima told a local weekly.

Chilima’s remarks were corroborated by head of regulatory affairs for Malawi Telecommunications Limited (MTL), Christopher Chibwana, who said in the absence of a law granting the regulators the power to install such a machine it would be difficult for them to give up.

“As operators our argument has always been that there is a need to enact a specific law in order to allow this machine to be used in the country. We believe that in the absence of such legislation (not the Communication Act) per se, the device will be prone to abuse infringing peoples’ right to privacy in the name of lawful intercept,” said Chibwana.

According to the operators, the CIRMS has seven components which include ‘Lawful Intercept’ which it said is for the purposes of intercepting, recording and listening to call conversations, and the reading of text messages and emails being transmitted through operator networks.

The operators argued, “The term Lawful Intercept assumes that there is a specific law allowing interception of communication, which we believe is not the case in Malawi.”

The issue of specific laws has sparked a huge debate between the two sides who are both claiming to represent the customers. Based on what was reported by the media, however, people were confused and did not approve of the implementation of what they have been told to be a spy machine.

Two injunctions have been obtained restraining the regulatory body from implementing the project while the other one restrains the operators and the regulator from installing and rolling out the CIRMS.

At the time of writing, early in 2012, the matter was still in court.

Mallick Mnela