New Law Would Censor the Internet in South Africa

May 28, 2015
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Right now, South Africa’s government is considering a new and highly controversial digital content law that, if passed unaltered, would essentially authorize widespread censorship of the internet.

The Online Regulation Policy drafted by the Film and Publication Board of South Africa calls for stricter regulation of online content, specifically the upload of films, games, and even publications that might contain references to sex, violence, and hate speech. The content would be regulated by requiring all individuals who want to upload content to the internet to submit and register their content with FPB, wherein it will be reviewed, approved, and classified according to the Board’s Classifications Guidelines.

As the internet is such a fluid medium, with millions of people making videos and posting daily, FPB has also taken this into consideration. Responsibility clauses in the legislation designate that the content creators are supposed to submit applications for review and classification, but in the case that an unclassified piece of content is uploaded by a content creator, it becomes the online distributor’s (for example, the local ISP) responsibility to have the content submitted or pulled down (and to pay the fees involved):

7.5 In the event that such content is a video clip on YouTube or any other global digital media platform, the Board may of its own accord refer such video clip to the Classification Committee of the Board for classification.

7.7 Upon classification, the Board shall dispatch a copy of the classification decision and an invoice payable by the online distributor within 30 days, in respect of the classification of the content in question.

Although the policy is supposedly designed to extend regulations applied to entertainment in the real world to digital content online and it is intended to better regulate what can be searched and found on the internet — especially material to which children have access — clauses like the following give FPB unfettered power to have content removed altogether, one of the most disturbing aspect of the new policy because it allows for government-mandated censorship (and South African authorities have already shown a penchant for censorship):

7.4 With regard to any other content distributed online, the Board shall have the power to order an administrator of any online platform to take down any content that the Board may deem to be potentially harmful and disturbing to children of certain ages.

This policy would not only impact videos and games that are uploaded to the internet, but also some publications. If passed in its current incarnation, it without a doubt will open the door for other content to be legally regulated and censored. “South Africa is one of Africa’s largest and fastest growing economies, and for it to adopt such an extreme preemptive Internet censorship regulation would be a serious setback for South Africa’s burgeoning online industry, as well as, needless to say, a serious blow to human rights,” writes Jeremy Malcolm, contributor to Electric Frontier Foundation.

The policy draft is currently available and open for public comment through July 15. Given the scope of the law, it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which it may impact content available to the international community. As outsiders, there’s not much Americans can do to fight the policy, but many organizations have been mobilizing to make sure South Africans know about this attempt to violate their right to free expression. EFF has endorsed an online petition for South African citizens opposed to the legislation, which can be viewed here.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!

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