The 90-day period for public comment on the Film & Publication Board’s (FPB’s) draft online regulation policy ended yesterday, and it is already clear that opposition to the draft policy from industry, civil society and citizens has been overwhelming.
The online regulation policy will require all individuals and organisations who upload digital content to first register with the FPB, pay a fee prescribed by the minister of communications, and either submit the content to the board for classification or self-classify in accordance with the board’s classification guidelines. Anybody who does not comply with the policy is liable to pay a fine or face a prison sentence of up to six months.
Legitimate concerns over the draft policy include the following:
— According to clause 7.4 of the policy, the FPB has the power to have any content deemed “potentially harmful and disturbing to children” taken down. When read with the Film & Publications Act, the policy will empower the board to ban (by way of an “XX” classification) any online content that is “degrading” or “promotes harmful behaviour”. The broadness of these terms gives the government significant latitude to proscribe content that does not fit in with the governing party’s political agenda and worldview.
— The policy appears to apply to any person who uploads online content, be it via Facebook, Instagram, a blog, or any other online platform. This opens the door for the state to impinge on citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of expression and to impart information.
— The policy will place an unnecessary administrative and financial burden on individuals and organisations who upload content. They will be required to pay a registration fee, appoint staff as classifiers and be forced to delay the publication of content until the pre-classification is complete.
— Many individuals and organisations will simply not comply with such onerous requirements, and there is no way that the FPB will be able to monitor and police all content uploaded. For example, it is estimated that 320 hours of content is uploaded on to YouTube every minute.
The FPB’s stated intention for drafting this policy is to protect children from exposure to harmful online content. This is a noble objective, and one that the Democratic Alliance supports. But it is highly unlikely that the draft policy will achieve this goal. It is simply too impractical and costly to implement and police.
On the other hand, there is every possibility that the online regulation policy could be used selectively to censor particular online content that the governing party does not like or runs counter to its political objectives.
The governing party is clearly aware that more and more people are accessing online content through cheaper mobile platforms and broadband. It therefore has a real interest in ensuring that the euphemistically termed “happy news” broadcast on SABC TV and radio is not contradicted by alternative information available on online platforms.
In light of the outcry from both industry experts and the public, it is essential that the communications minister, Faith Muthambi, and the FPB appear before parliament’s communications portfolio committee to discuss the draft policy.
Topics for discussion should include each objection raised in the public submissions; to what extent children are accessing harmful content online and the impact of this on society; best practice in other countries that successfully protect children from harmful online content without resorting to draconian censorship laws; and an outline of the process the minister intends to take from here.
Since assuming office last year, Muthambi has done nothing to dispel fears that she was deployed to set up a party-political propaganda machine in government. On the contrary, she has interfered with what is supposed to be an independent SABC board, meddled with communications regulator Icasa (a chapter nine institution under the constitution) and heaped political pressure on the print media.
With the publication of the draft online regulation policy, the minister has cemented a widely held perception that she is intent on abusing state resources to manipulate public opinion. If she is concerned about this perception, she will seize the opportunity to appear before the parliamentary committee and assuage these concerns.
- Gavin Davis is a DA MP and the party’s spokesman on communications