Speak up on Internet censorship

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Internet censorship could be SA's future if users don't make their concerns known.
Internet censorship could be SA's future if users don't make their concerns known.

Time is running out for South Africans to comment on a proposed draft policy that could see widespread Internet censorship and the suppression of freedom of speech online.

The date for comment on the Film and Publication Board's (FPB's) draft Online Regulation Policy has been extended to 15 July, and industry experts and activist groups are calling on local Internet users to make their voices heard before it is too late.

The FPB's draft policy aims to better regulate and classify digital content in SA to ensure it does not contain child pornography, hate speech or racism. However, the "vague" proposed regulation has met with strong criticism across the board.

The Right2Know (R2K) Campaign has been one of the strongest opponents of the draft legislation, calling the regulations "a totally unjustifiable censorship regime with nasty echoes from the past".

R2K media freedom and diversity organiser, Micah Reddy, says the wording of the regulations is so imprecise that it is unclear who exactly would be affected.

"The extremely broad scope of the regulations would allow the FPB to even censor ordinary users on blogging and social media platforms," says Reddy.

Attorney Avani Singh, from the Constitutional Litigation Unit at the Legal Resources Centre, says many of the policy's clauses are broadly framed, making it "unclear and ambiguous". She says a particular concern is that the draft policy is unclear regarding to whom it intends to apply or what content it intends to regulate. There are also problems at a practical level.

"It is difficult to understand how the Film and Publication Board will be able to effectively implement the draft policy without restricting members of the public from being able to post content online freely and with immediacy," says Singh.

R2K says the draft regulation would give the FPB sweeping powers, including the ability to revoke licences, order that content be taken down, and dispatch classifiers to the premises of publishers it deems non-compliant.

Reddy says the policy reads "like a textbook for apartheid's classifiers, who used similarly moralistic language to restrict legitimate expression. They have no place in a democracy."

Singh adds the policy would impose a scheme of administrative prior restraint, which constitutes a serious limitation on the right to freedom of expression.

ICT commentator Adrian Schofield says the FPB approach reminds him of King Canute's attempts to turn back the tide. He comments: "It is mind-blowingly impossible to control content on social media using the same principles as were applied to traditional media."

Paying attention

The FPB says it is heeding the call from industry groups and the general public, and is willing to make changes to the legislation.

The board, which falls under the Department of Communications, opened up dialogue with the public in March. FPB communications and public education manager Janine Raftopoulos says the engagement has been very informative so far. She says the FPB acknowledges concerns over who the policy aims to regulate and how it will be implemented, and it is working on "coming to the table with answers".

"Everyone is in agreement that we do need to regulate [harmful] content and protect children, but it's the how that is up for debate; how to monitor content in such a vast space," says Raftopoulos.

She says the FPB will consider all of the complaints laid out in the consultation process, relook at policy as it stands and make changes.

But Schofield sees no need for the regulation at all. He believes there is more than enough existing legislation and regulation to exercise reasonable control over what is published on social media platforms.

"Only undemocratic states that wish to rule every moment of their citizens' lives take this extreme approach. The policy should be put in an incinerator, not just in a dustbin where it might be found again in the future," he says.

Ignoring the problem

The legislation has been up for debate for months and yet the R2K petition against it only has around 8 400 signatures to date. Schofield says unfortunately the majority of South Africans are unaware of the implications of any impending legislation and run the risk of "only becoming aware after the fact that their rights have been trampled on in some way".

Singh says South Africans need to realise the draft policy in its current form affects everyone. She says if the draft policy were to be strictly applied by the FPB, all online users wanting to post anything would first have to undergo the process of administrative prior restraint, which would include having to pay to classify the content.

"Strictly speaking, this does not apply only to specific types of content such as content containing violence; in principle, it applies to all content, regardless of whether or not it contains material that might require classification.

"There can be no doubt that this creates the potential for serious restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, and hinders the ease with which individuals, businesses and the media can share information and ideas online," she says.

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