A long-promised update to the legislative framework governing how the Virgin Islands conducts business online came through the House of Assembly over the past week as five related bills got the thumbs-up from legislators.

After debating the Data Protection Act, 2019 and the Electronic Transfer of Funds Act, 2019 on March 4 and 5, members of the House turned their attention this week to passing three more companion bills they said will establish more efficient, effective systems for government and private services.

One of the bills, however, might bring scrutiny: The initial draft of the Electronic Transactions Act, 2019, which is designed to modernise electronic commerce systems, last year raised alarms for free-speech advocates here and abroad.

The other two bills passed this week — the Electronic Filing Act, 2019 and Audio Visual Link (Amendment) Act, 2020 — seek to update systems for sharing data through public offices and judicial courts.

Opposition Leader Marlon Penn said government last overhauled technology legislation two decades ago with the passage of the Electronic Transactions Act, 2001.

This law, which included measures necessary for financial services to thrive, served as the basis for the five bills the House debated over the past week, Mr. Penn said.

“We always had a basis for e-government, but I think it wasn’t robust enough for what we’re seeking to do in the 2021 era,” he explained. “Our legislative framework has to keep up with advancements in technology.”

‘A marriage’ 

Junior Minister for Trade and Economic Development Shereen Flax-Charles said the Electronic Filing Act, which passed on March 9, will “revolutionise the innovation of doing business” in the territory.

“It is going to be a marriage of both the public and the private sector doing business in a more expeditious manner,” she said, adding, “Businesses are now being more innovative, and we as government need to do the same.”

Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley — who said last year that agencies under his purview were working to offer online services like work permit renewals — said the bill will allow government offices to design new systems.

He added that business owners often tell him that it’s impractical to operate outside the Road Town area because banking and licensing typically must be done in person at downtown offices.

“Hopefully businesses will take advantage of this [bill] and expand beyond Road Town,” he said.

The bill passed with amendments, but the changes made by legislators in closed-door committee will not be publicised until after Governor John Rankin assents and the act is Gazetted.

Free speech concerns

On March 9, the House also passed the updated Electronic Transactions Act, 2019. It would repeal and replace the 2001 law of the same name and permit public authorities to transfer information and records digitally and use electronic signatures “to lend authenticity and integrity to correspondence in any electronic medium,” according to the bill text.

But shortly after the bill was Gazetted on Dec. 19, 2019, free-speech advocates including the Vienna-based International Press Institute and the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists took issue with certain provisions they said could have a chilling effect on journalism in the territory.

They criticised a section of the bill that regulates “intermediaries and electronic commerce service providers” — a category that apparently includes news organisations that post articles online.

Under a provision labelled “Procedure for dealing with unlawful, defamatory, etc. information,” such providers would be required to remove any published material upon learning that it “gives rise to civil or criminal liability.”

Most reputable new organisations would take this step on their own as a matter of responsible practice, but a more controversial provision follows: The bill doesn’t leave judicial courts to identify defamation; instead, it empowers the government minister with responsibility for ecommerce to require a provider to remove problematic material.

Free-speech advocates were troubled to see language that would put the power of censorship in the hands of government officials, who presumably would be the ones deciding if information is potentially defamatory.

None of the HOA members debated the bill publicly on March 9 before passing it with amendments. When they came out of closed-door committee, Mr. Fahie did not indicate that the provision in question was altered to afford greater protection for press freedoms. The final version of the act will be Gazetted if it receives assent from the governor.

Audio visual link

Rounding out the series of e-government bills, the House approved the Audio Visual Link (Amendment) Act, 2020 on March 9. It was created to help modernise the territory’s judicial system, allowing people to appear in court via remote communication under certain circumstances.

Mr. Fahie said he hopes passing and implementing the bill will help the court system deal with a backlog of cases.

“Anything to speed up justice being administered is a good thing,” he said.

Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone said the circumstances of the pandemic have shown the importance of having these back-up digital judicial systems in place.

The bill also now awaits the governor’s assent.