Mozambique: Red Tape to Register Sim Cards
All mobile phone owners in Mozambique (and there are more than six million of them) are expected to fill out registration forms by 15 November, under a government decree passed last week.
Each and every person who has a mobile phone will have to go to an establishment run by the mobile phone operators (the publicly-owned M-Cel or the South African company Vodacom) with some form of identity document and complete a form.
The form asks for the user's name, ID number, date, place of issue and validity, phone number, series number of the pre-paid sim card, address, and signature (or fingerprints in the case of illiterate users). Those who do not have any identity document (a common situation in the Mozambican countryside) will have to find somebody to vouch for their identity.
All new users of pre-paid sim cards will be registered at the moment of purchase. This means an end to the convenient practice of itinerant vendors selling sim cards. Instead, new users will have to buy the cards at an M-cel or Vodacom shop - which do not exist across large swathes of the countryside. Indeed, the M-Cel website lists just 19 M-Cel shops in the entire country.
A further restriction is that nobody under the age of 14 will be able to buy a sim card. No individual user can have more than three numbers from the same operator.
The decree justifies these measures on the grounds that registration will protect citizens against criminal acts perpetrated via the use of cell phones, and will promote the "responsible use" of phones, "contributing to the maintenance of order and public tranquility" (an oblique reference to the riots against price rises in Maputo on 1-2 September, which were coordinated via mobile phone text message).
Assuming that they started on Monday, the two operators have 50 days (including Saturdays and Sundays) to register their clients. That is an average of about 120,000 registrations per day. The task looks quite impossible.
Interviewed in Wednesday's issue of the independent daily "O Pais", the general manager of the telecommunications regulatory body, the INCM (Mozambique National Telecommunications Institute), Americo Muchanga, admitted that "if the time is not enough, the decision-making body (i.e. the government) could extend the deadline".
He claimed that in other countries where registration was spread over a much longer period, most users did not register their sim cards until the last few weeks. "In countries which gave a deadline of two years, in the first 18 months very little happened", he said. "Most activity was in the last six months or even the last two weeks".
He thought that giving a short deadline "is an advantage because it will force the greatest number of people to register within this time. The two month period is also useful for the operators, in that extending the period for two years is much more expensive than doing it in six, three or two months".
He denied that the riots dictated the government decision to register sim cards - designing a registration scheme was included in the 2006 Telecommunications Strategic Plan. Although the riots might have precipitated the government decision, the INCM had been talking to the operators about registration since 2007.
Muchanga denied that registration threatens confidentiality. The data base constructed from the registration will only put names to phone numbers. No content of any phone call will be registered. But if anyone has received an anonymous call, the data base will allow them to find out who owns the number.
According to the television station STV, some users have already gone to M-Cel or Vodacom shops in Maputo to register - although neither operator has made any attempt to publicise the registration procedures. Neither company has yet put anything about compulsory registration on its website.