The chief operating officer of the South African Film and Publication Board (FPB) has admitted that its Draft Online Regulation Policy, which published for public consultation in March, needs to be clearer in its objectives and language used.
Speaking at a public meeting to discuss the Draft, chief operating officer Sipho Risiba (pictured above) said that he understood criticism around its plans to require all content producers to register for an FPB publication licence and pay for content to be given an age classification prior to being published on the internet.
Critics slammed the proposals as vague, all-encompassing and open to abuse, and an unconstitutional application of outright censorship. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the proposals the “worst internet law in Africa”.
Tonight, Risiba said that the draft has been misunderstood because it uses definitions of “content” and “distributor” which are laid out in the Film and Publications Act, which exempts certain providers – such as newspapers – from having to submit their content for approval. Taking a somewhat conciliatory tone, he said that the board would be looking at clarifying definitions throughout the document.
Risiba added that the chances were that the timetable for the Draft to be finalised would probably be extended too.
Activists from the Right to Know Campaign, who were out in force for the meeting, said that the Draft would still be too vague to make sense. For example, it’s referred to as “Policy Regulations” – under South African legal structures a policy and a set of regulations are two separate documents. The first is not legally binding, while the second is law. Pushed on the issue, Risiba said that the aim was to provide a policy document, not regulations.
We shall refer to it as the Draft, to try and avoid confusion.
“The language is too vague and open ended,” said R2K’s Mark Weinberg, “The legislation would be open to abuse and used to supresss free speech in the future.”
Risiba maintained that the purpose of the bill was to protect children from viewing inappropriate material online by forcing all uploaded videos to carry an age restriction classification, and to prevent the spread of material depicting child abuse.
Risiba also told the meeting that a new bill which will increase the penalties for uploading child pornography, making racist comments online or conducting hate speech would be coming before parliament later this year. He also said that the FPB hadn’t gone outside its remit and wasn’t attempting to regulate the internet.
“This is not an attempt by the FPB to give itself powers outside of legislation,” Risiba said, “It’s Icasa’s job to regulate the internet, it’s our job to regulate the content.”
Risiba gave several examples of why he believes the new regulations are needed. These included a video of a pastor encouraging his congregation to eat grass and drink petrol, which Risiba claimed the FPB had successfully managed to remove from Facebook because it might encourage children to mimic the activities.
A game called Whack Your Boss was also shown off as an example of the kind of mobile app that contains extreme cartoon violence that could harm children.
The game, meanwhile, is a browser-based one hosted on a US website, over which the FPB has no jurisdiction.
In further evidence of the complex issues involved, it could be pointed out that the FPB itself has three videos in its YouTube channel, none of which carry an age classification label.
Further concerns were voiced at the meeting about the Draft’s proposal that: “application service providers, host providers and internet access providers will bear the responsibility of putting in place content filtering systems to ensure that illegal content or content which may be harmful to children is not uploaded in their services”.
While the FPB may maintain that it is not planning to censor the internet, the Draft as it currently stands proposes exactly that if all internet servers are going to have to install content filters.
At a meeting ahead of the public discussion, Kgalalelo Morwe of Media Monitoring Africa told a gathering of internet freedom activists that “the regulations speak about protecting children, but we need to reasses the way we do that.
“The regulations emphasise protection, but all the FPB is doing is instilling fear in children and preventing them from participating… it’s disempowering, presenting children as passive rather than active digital citizens.”
The budget proposed for putting the Draft proposal into place is currently around R26.6m. That includes R20m for new datacentres and infrastructure to allow for large numbers of videos to be submitted, and R2m in operating costs. It also includes a R4m tender for ICT equipment to allow submission of clips and viewing suites – which has had to be reissued as no suitable supplier was found.
The FPB currently employs 83 staff, and Ribisa admitted it would take thousands of people to try and watch every clip of video uploaded in South Africa. The current Draft proposes a system whereby registered content distributors can classify their own material subject to regular vetting by the FPB. Unclassified or inappropriately classified material could be subject to mandatory takedown notices which the uploader would have to apply to overturn, and face a fine.
Critics worry that a video such as that of police killing a taxi driver in Daveyton, which
Constructive proposals from the public tonight included scrapping the Draft altogether and investing more in “digital citizenship” classes for parents and children.
You have until 15th July to submit your thoughts on the draft to the FPB, and you can email your thoughts to this address. Freedom of speech activists from the SOS Coalition say that they plan to have an online form for direct submissions up and running soon.