ITWeb TV: FPB classifies its budget as insufficient

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 01 Dec 2023
As the Film and Publication Board takes on an expanded mandate that includes online content regulator, the public entity’s CEO Dr Mashilo Boloka speaks about the ideal budget to build technological capacity and drive public education around online safety, among others. During the discussion, Boloka also touches on how artificial intelligence sometimes fall short in dealing with certain cultural nuances and the rise of online sexual harms against children. #itwebtv #FPB #onlinesafety

The Film and Publication Board (FPB) would like its annual financial budget increased to R450 million, to enable it to expand its role from classification authority to online content regulator.

This is according to FPB CEO Dr Mashilo Boloka, during an interview with ITWeb TV.

During the wide-ranging interview, Boloka discussed the entity’s new mandate as online content regulator, budget constraints, how artificial intelligence (AI) sometimes falls short in dealing with cultural nuances in terms of classification standards, the rise of online sexual harm against children and driving public education around online safety.

The FPB is an entity of the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT). In February, National Treasury’s Estimates of National Expenditure document revealed the entity expects to derive 79.2% (R325.8 million) of its revenue over the period ahead through transfers from the DCDT, and the remainder through fees for classification and registration.

Boloka explained he wouldn’t necessarily describe R450 million per annum as the “perfect figure”, but believes it would enable the organisation to do a lot more.

It would go towards technological capacity, public education, online monitoring and building resource capacity within the organisation, among other initiatives.

The challenge around resource capacity is a real one, he commented. “In the UK, for example, after the enactment of their online safety Act, they hired about 350 people.

“The FPB is a small organisation – we’re 95 people. We’re trying to add capacity as our resources allow. We’re doing what we can; we can’t sit back and say we don’t have resources.

“The biggest area of investment should be technology because technology should be able to assist in our mandate.”

However, he added: “There is one area where technology won’t help and that is face-to-face public education.

“In this era of technological development, nothing beats face-to-face interaction. In the next five years, we want to strengthen our public education programme – both in terms of the programmes offered and the members of the public that interface with our people.

“If we can build technological capacity and increase public education, I’ll be okay.”

Dr Mashilo Boloka, CEO of the Film and Publication Board. Photograph by Lesley Moyo.
Dr Mashilo Boloka, CEO of the Film and Publication Board. Photograph by Lesley Moyo.

Growing responsibility

The FPB is a public entity founded in the 1960s, to classify all film material distributed in South Africa. In 2019, the Films and Publications Amendment Act was enacted, in an effort to transform the entity into a fully-fledged content regulator in the new online environment.

The Act seeks to modernise laws that protect the South African public from exposure to prohibited content distributed online, as well as ensuring children are not exposed to harmful digital content.

Boloka said this means the work of the entity has increased three-fold, and now includes registration of online social media platforms to operate in South Africa, enforcing compliance with the Act and classification of movies.

“The Act only came into operation last year on 1 March, which was to give the organisation more time to restructure itself. Since last year, we have been putting in place regulatory instruments that will enable us to achieve our new mandate.”

Commenting on the challenges of the evolution from film classification body to an online content regulator, Boloka noted this hasn’t been a small feat, especially as it had to be done with no additional funding.

“As you know, the fiscus is still pressed; there are a lot of pressing needs for the country – load-shedding, social development programmes, etc. We needed to generate our own funds and the Act allows us to do that.

“That’s what we’ve been working on through the regulation fees. When the operators request to register with us, there is an applicable fee they have to pay and that has been able to help us.”

It has been an interesting, complex and sometimes stressful journey, particularly from a skillset point of view, he commented. “We have employees that are used to classification, but now there is a new mandate, so retraining has to occur. There needs to be a balance between outside skills and training internal staff – we have tried to do that.

“Another interesting aspect of this process is that it redefines the future of work – just the migration from classification to content moderation has added a new area of need for traditional classifiers.

“In terms of a career path, it has helped traditional classifiers to extend their skills from just classification, to content moderation and quality assurance.

“The role of technology such as generative AI or machine learning now also plays a role in classification. Given that a lot of a staff members’ work is no longer in classification – because a machine might be helping with that – what is then needed is a lot of quality assurers. This is so that whatever result the machine gives, it can be quality-assured. A lot of work that is required by the organisation is in that area as well.”

He highlighted that grooming and deep fakes are among the most prevalent in South Africa, in terms of online sexual exploitation of children.

“The online harms know no boarders, no jurisdiction. We want to see ourselves as a leader on online regulation, not doing it alone but collaboratively with our partners – parents, law enforcement agencies, other regulators regionally, nationally and internationally.”