Internet 'censorship' Bill may see changes

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The Bill has come under fierce scrutiny since it was first gazetted, as it is seen to infringe on freedom of speech.
The Bill has come under fierce scrutiny since it was first gazetted, as it is seen to infringe on freedom of speech.

The Film and Publication Board (FPB) has proposed changes to the controversial Films and Publications Amendment Bill, which is set to be finalised by Parliament next week.

"Following the inputs received, the Department of Communications (DOC) together with the FPB proposed amendments particularly around the distinction between a commercial and non-commercial online distributor, as well as how content that is streamed by a broadcaster will be treated," FPB COO Sipho Risiba told ITWeb via e-mail.

The Bill, labelled by some as the "Internet Censorship Bill", has come under fierce scrutiny since it was first gazetted, with many calling for it to be overhauled for infringing on freedom of speech.

Opponents of the Bill have voiced concerns over the vague and broad terminology used; stipulations that would see the FPB overstepping into the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa's (ICASA's) regulatory jurisdiction; and that it contains constitutional infringements on citizens' right to privacy and freedom of expression.

Risiba says, however, that while the FPB's newest amendments "are proposals subsequent to the public input and stakeholder session, Parliament is yet to be appraised of them and make a determination thereon".

"The legislative review process [is] a parliamentary process and the culminating content of the Bill will be determined by Parliament respectively," he says.

The Bill was discussed by the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications last month and is due to be back in front of the committee next week. The committee is still deliberating on the Bill but previously said it hoped to finalise it on 25 October.

"Parliament has directed that there be further deliberations prior to the presentation by the Department of Communications on 25 October," adds Risiba.

Top concerns

Risiba could not give an exact number of comments received from the public on the Bill. However, he says the main concerns that emerged "were in respect of the definitions, streaming as well as the possible encroaching by the FPB on the regulatory jurisdiction of ICASA".

The Bill is supposed to address the shortcomings of the Films and Publications Act of 1996.

"The Bill seeks to ensure consumers of online content are duly protected from harmful content and are empowered to make informed viewing choices for both themselves and the children in their care. The Bill further seeks to ensure the online space is not abused as a platform to disseminate unlawful and prohibited content," Risiba explains.

Last month, the Democratic Alliance (DA) argued that in its current form, the Bill "gives government wide-sweeping powers to censor content on the Internet" and is "unworkable, unaffordable, vague and contains several unconstitutional provisions".

Another strong opponent of the Bill has been the Right2Know Campaign (R2K), which says the Bill contains a number of over-broad definitions ? like 'online distributor', 'distribution', 'publications', 'child pornography' ? as well as the overlapping definitions of 'film' and 'digital film'.

"The definition for 'digital film', for example, is so broad that it would include any video uploaded, including Vines, GIFs, and snippets of personal videos," R2K says in a briefing note on its Web site.

This would essentially include uploads by private citizens on social media platforms.

R2K also believes the Bill has the potential to create confusion in regulation.

"The Bill's attempt to class Internet Protocol TV service providers as online distributors ? meaning that content streamed by a broadcaster regulated by ICASA falls within the Bill's jurisdiction ? will blur boundaries of regulation, extend the board's authority beyond its mandate and into that of ICASA, and create further regulatory confusion," explains R2K in its parliamentary submission on the Bill.

"Furthermore, the attempt to compel ICASA to refuse to issue or renew licences for non-compliance is plainly unconstitutional."

The FPB's Draft Online Regulation Policy - published last year - has also been amended following public consultations after being widely criticised for, among other issues, forcing all online content to be pre-classified before it is published, effectively censoring free-speech on social media.

FPB communications and public education manager Janine Raftopoulos previously told ITWeb the Amendment Bill and the Draft Online Regulation Policy need to be read independent of each other.

"The purpose of the amendment Bill is to address the shortcomings identified in the implementation of the Act, whereas the purpose of the draft Online Regulation Policy is to provide a clear framework for the classification and labelling of digital content and online media as well as distribution of online content," according to Raftopoulos.

However, the DA argues the combination of the regulation policy and the Bill provides the FPB "wide powers that amount to nothing short of censorship".

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