Broad online content regulation makes ICT experts uneasy
A contentious regulation drafted by the Film and Publication Board to classify all online content has unsettled some content distributors in South Africa, but the board says the regulation will be gazetted and open for public comment in the new year.
At the end of November, the Mail & Guardian reported how the draft policy, which is not yet a public document although the M&G has seen it, requires that, as of March 31 2016, no one will be allowed to distribute digital content in South Africa unless it is classified in terms of the board’s guidelines, or a system accredited by the board, and aligned to its classification guidelines, and the Film and Publications Act and its classifications. The board’s logo must also be prominently displayed.
The regulation applies not only to major corporates such as Google and Apple, who will be sanctioned if they don’t comply, but also to bloggers and individuals posting video clips online, who too can be penalised.
But at least one organisation has said the information technology and communications (ITC) community was concerned that consultation had been limited in the drafting of the regulations and that the draft was not readily available.
There are fears of an underhanded agenda, because some majors companies, such as Google and Apple, which were given until February 28 next year to respond, were given copies of the draft but not others that will also be affected.
ICT experts who have seen the draft expressed misgivings about the breadth of its scope, which could allow for abuse, particularly by the government.
But, according to Themba Wakashe, the board’s chief executive, the regulation will be open to public scrutiny,and, although already drafted, there will be intensive consultations.
The board’s chief operations officer, Sipho Risiba, said: “The intention was not to sideline anyone. It will be gazetted so that everyone is consulted … And we are not inflexible, we can always extend the time … if there are real and genuine reasons to extend.”
Wakashe said the board wanted the process to be public.
“We want there to be certainty in the industry because it is economic transactions that mean a lot to the economy of this country. We are absolutely sensitive to that. It must also be understood that we are regulating in the interest of the country and not in the interest of individual companies.”
Risiba added: “We are not a censor. Our responsibility is [that] people can make informed decisions, viewing decisions. That is why we insist on classification.”
Public workshops will be held in the main cities in February.
“In addition to that, we will be publishing a notice in the Government Gazette, the same as we would do with legislation, because what we intend is that, once approved, this policy will have the force and effect of law. For that reason, we have to publish it for public comment,” Ribisa said, adding that the law did not require it, but it would still be done because it was best practice.
The draft policy requires that anyone who wants to distribute a film, game or certain publications online will have to apply for an online distribution agreement. A fee, determined by the minister, will be imposed and, after payment, the distributor can classify content on behalf of the board by using its classification guidelines and those of the Film and Publications Act.
Amendment Bill goes to the minister
In July this year, the board was moved from the department of home affairs to the department of communications, as it will play an integral role in digital migration, according to Wakashe.
The board recently finalised reviewing the Films and Publications Amendment Bill 2014, which has been submitted to the minister of communications, although the industry hasn’t seen it yet.
Once enacted, and in conjunction with the online content regulation, it will dramatically extend the jurisdiction of the board.
Wakashe said: “The opportunity here is how do we, together with Google, together with Apple, and make sure that, one, we have critical consumers of content, [and] two, the space for that consumption of content is not abused?
“We want to be able to say, let’s all be reasonable and create a conducive environment for everybody to benefit.
“We want companies to invest in South Africa, we want South Africans to be exposed to the world, and we want them to leverage the advantages that come with technological advancements. But everybody knows all good come with some negative, so how do we deal with that?”