The Zimbabwean government has proposed obliging its internet service providers to divulge details of e-mails deemed offensive or dangerous. Zispa, the local ISP association, has asked the government to clarify its proposed addendum to providers' franchise contracts. One ISP told BBC News Online it was not a provider's duty to police the net. President Robert Mugabe has suggested the internet, widely developed in Zimbabwe, is a tool of colonialists.

The BBC's source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, pointed out that the move would be impracticable, given the volume of traffic involved. Part of the ISPs' concern is the apparent vagueness of the wording in the addendum, a copy of which the BBC has obtained.

They would be required, in the event of an investigation, to pass to government officials user details relating to material featuring anything from obscenity to "anti-national activities".

It is already illegal in Zimbabwe to "undermine the authority of the president" or to "engender hostility" towards him as well as to make abusive, obscene or false statements against him. The ISPs point out that, while they would always be happy to assist any investigation into crimes such as terrorism, it is not their job to monitor e-traffic.

"Our business is internet provision, not internet policing," said the BBC's source, drawing an analogy with car manufacturers. It would, the spokesperson said, be like making car firms responsible for the behaviour of drivers. The proposed contract addendum, quietly distributed in mid-May, also refers to the contravention of non-existent "international cyber laws". ISPs do not keep records of the emails they handle and would require a huge storage capacity to do so.

The internet is one of the few media left through which opposition groups can spread their message as the government controls the radio and television stations and newspapers are under pressure. Only last November, 14 people were arrested for circulating an e-mail calling for protests to oust Mr Mugabe.

BBC News Online