Internet freedom thrives in SA

Minister Malusi Gigaba’s “romantic” video, Adam Catzavelos’ racist rant and the Gupta bots have one thing in common: the freedom South Africans have online.

Last week Freedom House, a United States-based nongovernmental organisation, released its annual ‘Freedom of the Net‘ report, which said that South Africa is ranked as one of the countries with the most internet freedom in the world.

South Africa ranked eighth, preceded by Iceland (in first place), Estonia, Canada, Germany, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Internet freedom is measured by the prevalence of censorship laws, surveillance programmes, ­government hacks, blocking of social media and other ways of limiting or manipulating citizens’ freedom of speech.

READ MORE: Internet access has become a human right, data inquiry hears

China, Iran, Ethiopia and Syria have the lowest internet freedom.

The report said that in the past year internet freedom declined in 26 countries and improved in 19 countries, out of 65 analysed.

According to the Freedom House report, neither the state nor other third parties actively block or filter online content in South Africa, leaving citizens to monitor the web for themselves and to hold accountable those who generate content deemed illegal or unethical.

It’s also South Africans’ responsibility to become educated to be less susceptible to defamatory content, harassment and even malware.

In 2016 it was citizens who took on racist Penny Sparrow’s Facebook post likening black people at a beach to monkeys. Black Twitter tracked her down and she was hauled before the Equality Court for crimen injuria. She was ordered to pay a R150 000 fine. In another incident, public outrage and Economic Freedom Fighters’ protests forced the Smokehouse and Grill restaurant to close its doors because it had business ties with Adam Catzavelos, who had posted a video of himself in which he used the k-word. And in July 2017 a South African expatriate lodged a complaint with the Internet Service Providers’ Association (Ispa) against the website (Black Opinion). Soon afterwards, web-­hosting company Hetzner took the site down for two weeks. The website allegedly promoted racism and defamation of then finance ­minister Pravin Gordhan and the wealthy Oppenheimer family.

Black Opinion was one of 203 websites taken down last year, according to the latest data from Ispa, a South African internet industry body. The organisation relies on ­members of the public to submit website ­takedown notices. From 2016 to 2017, notices have increased from 355 to 464.

Dominic Cull, a regulatory adviser to Ispa, says the increase in website takedown requests is a positive sign, because it shows that South Africans are becoming more aware of the existence of a remedy that can protect their rights online.

The main reasons for website removals included copyright or trademark infringements, fraud, harmful programs such as malware or phishing, defamation, hate speech, harassment and invasion of privacy.

Malware and phishing refer to computer viruses or programs that compromise the user’s privacy or harms the computer’s functionality.

But Cull does caution that only locally hosted content can be taken down, which excludes popular US-based social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, on which most of the defamation speech occurs.

For foreign-hosted content, South African citizens lack a clear framework to protect their online privacy and hold others to account. This is in contrast to ambitious strides made by the European Union in introducing the General Data Protection Regulation, which addresses the export of personal data outside the region and consent. Similar data protection laws have been introduced in Indonesia, Argentina and Brazil.

No one can forget when the author of Bare: The Blesser’s Game, Jackie Phamotse, claimed on Twitter that TV mogul Basetsana Kumalo’s husband, Romeo, was involved in a sex video with a young male celebrity. The couple took her to court for harassment and only then did she reveal that the tweet was made up. The court ruled Phamotse should not harass the couple or write about them on social media.

Just last week, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba’s “romantic” tape, which he said was made for his wife, became one of the most frequently searched in the country. He claims that it was leaked by someone hacking into his phone.

The clip was widely circulated on social media platforms and, according to reports, it has also made its way to porn site PornHub.

The incident prompted discussions about online privacy, defamation and the vulnerability of being a victim of cyber attacks. This adds more urgency to those seeking to pass new laws and legislation to regulate the country’s online space.

Even with the laws that are in place, “violations [in South Africa] aren’t publicised too well”, says Lazola Kati, who works for the nonprofit organisation Right2Know, which advocates for freedom of expression.

“The public is not properly informed when internet violations occur. Our laws currently don’t state what these entail,” she says.

Government officials have increasingly pronounced on the need for social media regulation, leading to concerns about online censorship. Specifically, the Films and Publications Amendment Bill and the Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill have come under scrutiny.

Internet freedom also means being vulnerable to disinformation, says Kyle Findlay, senior data ­science director at Kantar, a research, data and insight company. Findlay refers to the “Gupta bot clampdown” when Twitter last year banned several hundred bot accounts promoting the controversial Gupta family and linked to defamatory sites such as WMC (white monopoly capital) Leaks. “It changed our national dialogue,” he says.

Bots are automated accounts controlled by computers, algorithms and rules. They tend to be used to “boost” the content of other accounts controlled by real people with likes and retweets, Findlay explains.

Freedom House states that “disinformation and propaganda disseminated online have poisoned the public sphere”. In April, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified in the US Congress about his company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it was revealed that Facebook had exposed the data of up to ­87-million users to political exploitation.

READ MORE: We have created a monster in the internet machine

Findlay recently published independent research on political interference in South African Twitter between 2014 and 2018. By looking at more than two million tweets, he analysed how many accounts have been suspended by Twitter in an effort to quantify the extent of suspicious activity.

Up to 9% of these tweets were from accounts that have been suspended, although he says that people need to remain vigilant about the 2019 general elections because certain groups will continue to spread misinformation.

“Twitter definitely isn’t representative of South Africa. But what happens on Twitter has a way of filtering into the rest of our conversations. If you’re talking about something that makes you angry, scared or outraged, take a step back and think a second before you share that content.”

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Jacques Coetzee
Jacques Coetzee
Jacques Coetzee is the Adamela Data Fellow at the Mail & Guardian, a position funded by the Indigo Trust.

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