Deactivation of mobile phones in Papua New Guinea imminent

Ombudsman Commission in-house lawyers Mr Mathew Kik, Dr Vergil Narokobi and Mr Robert Homi leaving the court (Credit: Amanda H A Watson)
Written by Amanda H A Watson

The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea (PNG) has this week declined to answer questions asked of it regarding the SIM card registration regulation of 2016. The direct impact of this court hearing is that unregistered SIM cards currently in use in mobile phones around the country will likely be deactivated in coming days. A recent news article suggested that 40% of SIM cards in use are unregistered. Unless the regulator, the National Information and Communications Technology Authority (NICTA), grants the users of these unregistered SIM cards additional time, these people will find themselves no longer able to make phone calls, send text messages and so on.

A full bench of the Supreme Court heard the case this week, on Wednesday 18 December 2019, from 1.30pm until 3pm. The five judges sitting were justices Salika, Kandakasi, Cannings, David and Hartshorn. They did not reach a decision as such. Instead, they declined to give an opinion regarding questions asked of the court by the Ombudsman Commission.

The court proceeding was Supreme Court Reference 1/2019, which was instigated by the Ombudsman Commission early in 2019 as a special reference pursuant to section 19 of the constitution. In essence, what this means is that the Ombudsman Commission questioned the constitutionality of mandatory SIM card registration. The significance of this case is that deactivation of SIM cards was on hold for most of 2019 whilst this matter was awaiting resolution.

The SIM card regulation stemmed from the NICTA Act, as the enabling or parent act. The Commission tried to argue that the regulation restricts certain freedoms enshrined in the constitution and therefore such a regulation should have to go through parliament. The Commission’s first question of the court did not specify any act or regulation, but instead asked the court to consider whether or not a regulation which impacts upon freedoms should be passed by a majority in parliament even though it is linked to an act which has been through the same process. Two further questions were submitted by the Commission to the court, but these were not discussed in detail because judges interrupted the Commission’s presentation to ask about the express rights being infringed.

Lawyer Charles Kaki from Kawat Lawyers was representing NICTA. He said that the first question was too general and stated that the second and third questions stemmed from the first question. He said that the submission was incompetent and suggested that perhaps the court could direct the Ombudsman Commission to re-frame the questions. Lawyer Tauvasa Tanuvasa Chou-Lee, the Solicitor General of Papua New Guinea, suggested that the court should decline to answer the questions raised by the Ombudsman Commission.

The judges conferred amongst themselves and then announced that they had decided to decline to give an opinion on the three questions put to them. They said that the questions have no immediate relevance to circumstances in PNG.

The outcome of this court hearing could have a very real impact on the many people who live in rural and remote communities across PNG, where mobile phones provide the only available form of communication. There is now no legal impediment to NICTA imposing the regulation, which means that telecommunication companies will face large fines if there are unregistered SIM cards in use. Deactivation of SIM cards in the days before Christmas seems likely. I hope that NICTA will choose to grant additional time for SIM card registration. Ideally, financial resources could be mobilised so that additional efforts can be made to promote registration and explain the reasons for registration. To effectively reach the remaining users, registration teams would need to travel to remote areas, which would obviously be a costly and time-consuming process. At this time though, with the PNG economy struggling and government coffers stretched towards their limits, it is difficult to imagine where such resources would come from.

Thank you to UPNG tutor Mr Joseph Pundu for his assistance.

For background and further information, see these earlier posts:

January 24 2018: this detailed post outlines reasons why countries opt for compulsory registration and discusses the challenge of many people in PNG not possessing identification documentation.

April 30 2018: an urgent Supreme Court injunction was granted to the Hon Bryan Kramer, Member for Madang, to prevent the immediate deactivation of SIM cards.

May 15 2018: the Supreme Court injunction expired.

May 17 2018: the communication minister granted mobile phone users more time to register their SIM cards.

August 1 2018: deactivation of SIM cards commenced in urban areas.

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Amanda H A Watson

Dr Amanda H A Watson is a Research Fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. From January 2017 to August 2019, she taught at the University of Papua New Guinea’s School of Business and Public Policy under the ANU-UPNG Partnership.

12 Comments

  • The Papua New Guinea Minister for Communications & Information Technology, Hon. Timothy Masiu, told me this week that the registration deadline for mobile phone SIM cards in PNG is now May 31st, instead of March 31st. The extra two months is due to coronavirus.

  • Following the court case described in this blog post, the Minister for Communications & Information Technology, Hon. Timothy Masiu, seemed to be concerned about the ability for mobile phone users in rural areas to register their SIM cards (see https://www.abc.net.au/radio-australia/programs/pacificbeat/png-plans-to-deactivate-all-unregistered-mobile-phones/11884872).

    However, he has since then said that March 31st is the deadline for the registration of mobile phone SIM cards in Papua New Guinea (see http://www.looppng.com/png-news/minister-clarifies-sim-deactivation-89854).

    My understanding is that this will mean that unregistered SIM cards will be deactivated on April 1st. This will not be an April Fool’s Day joke for those affected.

    Amanda
    Dr Amanda H A Watson

  • Thanks Amanda for your insightful article. I hope that for the benefit of the country and its population, a softer solution than deactivation, and with probably another extension, will be considered in consultation with mobile operators. GSMA has produced a substantial body of knowledge regarding do’s and don’ts of mandatory SIM card registration. As I read the comments, alleviating the fears of mobile customers by putting in place robust data protection framework and transparency on how their personal data will be used is fundamental. In a country like PNG, where sometimes mobile can be the only gateway to information and long distance communication, more needs to be done to ensure the most vulnerable won’t be the ones who’ll pay the heftiest price.

  • Politics since Roman times: panem and circenses. Keep city dwellers (including students in the capital) happy and distracted. What happens in rural areas is irrelevant, and in fact the picture there is clear: total neglect since independence. No roads, no piped drinking water, no sanitation, no affordable electricity, no properly supplied, staff and functioning clinics or schools, and soon no access to a cell phone.

  • Thank you to the seven people who have taken the trouble to share their thoughts regarding mandatory mobile phone SIM card registration in Papua New Guinea.

    In response to Moses Sakai’s concerns about NICTA holding registration information, please note that the registration databases are not held by NICTA. In fact, the databases are held by the telecommunication companies themselves, i.e. Digicel and the entity that is currently being formed out of a merger of bmobile Vodafone and Telikom.

    John Purre, if a customer is uncertain about whether or not their SIM card has been registered, they should be able to ask their telecommunication provider. The physical location of some mobile phone handsets can be traced, for instance if the owner misplaces the handset or if it is stolen. You also asked how the Supreme Court’s ruling would benefit the general public. It may be that compulsory registration means that certain citizens are able to ask the police to pursue criminals who have been harassing them via their mobile phones. My concern though is that the process may lead to the deactivation of many mobile phones.

    Thanks again to those who have posted comments. Other comments are always welcome.

    Amanda 🙂

    Dr Amanda H A Watson

  • Am sorry for my people in the village, especially my mum and dad. If they (NICTA) deactivate all the unregistered SIM Cards then I will suffer the most because NO SIM registration roll out in my district and village. Their rights of using the phone will be deprived.

  • If the PNG Govt. coffers are so outstretched & the Economy is so limited as reported here, & they can’t assist local communities in accessing mobile phone usage; then how can they afford to buy 40x Masserati cars & 8x Bentleigh cars which cost Millions of dollars & these have now been given to various politicians to drive around in whilst the money would have been better spent on education, health & communication access for PNG people.

  • First of all how can they (NICTA) possibly get all digicel users in PNG to register their SIM cards when they can’t get people from the remote areas of PNG to register their SIMs? Common sense. Digicel cannot risk losing its customers when it has been putting great efforts into maintaining its business to grow in the Country. Whether the court agrees or disagrees with the Ombudsman Commission his point is totally and completely valid because it is concerning people from the remote parts of the country as no one has the right to deprive them of their rights to services provided in the country. The court has to take this into consideration or even better come up with ways to resolve this issue as we are all are entitled to our rights as individuals protected under the constitutional law. If NICTA wants to implement policies with regards to network security or other acts concerned then they have to consider people living in the remotest areas in the country because they are the ones missing out on everyday services and it will only be fair if they are also being served just as the people living in towns and cities.

    • I think it’s about time, we go through with diactivation of sim cards. Digicel is eating away huge amounts of money from it’s users without undermining how dificult it’s customers face, no potty on poor customers. All non registered customers nowadays pay more than the registered customers, and they feel the pain, but hard to talk over coz that’s the service they are using. Deactivation will bring us back to old ways that we would not need phones anymore.

  • How can you track on the use of mobile phone if the SIM is registered or not.
    Even those who registered, will the user still be able to track the use of his/her Mobile phone.
    The supreme court’s decision, how will it benefit the general public?
    I believe Dr. Amanda Watson can answer these questions because it is the area of her expertise.
    Thank you!
    JP.

  • It’s a poor prosecution by the Ombudsman, if the first question didn’t cite any act/regulation that breached a  specific freedom (I assume the citizen’s right to freedom of expression). Begs the question, does the Ombudsman have competent lawyers to present complaints against the state at the Supreme Court level? 

    Second, if 40% of SIM owners are unregistered, then the telecommunications companies have just as much interest in getting these SIMS registered as the unregistered SIM owners. I assume the 40% are users in remote areas, who would use these SIMs largely to text and call only. However, if this is true, and if the telecommunications companies’ largest revenue comes from other things such as internet services, then the companies wouldn’t be motivated to register these SIMs. In Manus, the Digicel tower responsible for connecting islands to the south has not been operating since 2017, when locals stole the tower’s solar panels. If this was a large revenue base, Digicel would have had the tower’s solar panels replaced and guards stationed by now; as it is, Digicel can let these remote customers go, as richer, urban customers subsidise the cost of losing rural customers (the same issue with PNG Power and BSP). 

    • Thanks for the update Dr Watson on SIM card registration and deactivation.

      To be honest, I feel unsafe when surfing the internet because all my SIM cards are registered because I know for sure that there are three entities that are tracking and tracing my online activities in terms of the websites that I’m visiting.
      1. NICTA through the registration of the SIM card,
      2. The web browser that I’m using
      3. The website that I’m visiting through the use of cookies

      For the 2nd and 3rd, it’s safe because they have the Privacy Policy that would protect user’s privacy and even a web user can leave a visited website untraceable with the use of a strong VPN such as Nord VPN despite of the Privacy Policy. However, as a regular internet user, I’m not sure about the 1st one in terms of whether my privacy is safe or not even with the use of strong VPN like NordVPN.

      Secondly, is it necessary for government through NICTA to impose fines on telecommunication companies because of their lack of registering users SIM cards on time? This is bad. NICTA should at least give additional time to telecommunication companies to register unregistered SIM cards because NICTA started this. Otherwise it would be better if the government just do away with this Compulsory SIM card registration.

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