Censoring the Internet: Can online content be regulated?

May 25, 2015

It is impossible to censor the Internet, to stop people from publishing whatever they want online. We all know this. Well, everyone except the Film and Publications Board (FPB), it seems… because it would appear the FPB is attempting to do exactly that.

Earlier this year, the FPB released a draft Online Regulations Policy which aims to regulate and classify content in the online space. Public consultations are currently being held across the country while comments on the draft policy may be submitted until 15 July. The policy has been widely criticised as an attempt to “police” online content but the FPB maintains the policy can change after discussions.Its purpose is “to ensure that children are protected from exposure to disturbing and harmful content,” according to the policy. “Although the current legislation is not platform-specific, the Board’s compliance and classification activities have over the year focused more on physical platforms and less on the online space, resulting in children being exposed to unclassified content accessed through the Internet and other mobile platforms,” the policy reads. It speaks to the way media content is now being distributed and consumed – “anytime, anywhere, and however they want it”.

The threat of online content being classified before being published speaks to a misunderstanding of the amount of content being published online, every minute, of every day and on multiple platforms. The feasibility of having to classify each piece of content while it is still relevant and newsworthy boggles the mind.

As the Right2Know Campaign says, “The time spent on the pre-classification of content would undermine one of the most valuable traits of the Internet – its immediacy.” It has vigorously campaigned against the policy, slamming it as an “attempt to exercise pre-publication censorship of Internet content”. “It is likely that the majority of online users will not apply to the FPB for pre-classification of content, nor pay the subscription fee prior to publication, but under these regulations online users stand to be criminalised for doing something as simple as posting content online.”

The R2K Campaign describes the policy as “totally impracticable”. “It also reveals a massive ignorance on the part of the FPB on how the Internet actually works. And contrary to the arguments of the FPB, these regulations cannot practically prevent the distribution of content that is harmful to children.” The R2K Campaign has organised marches against the policy and is calling for concerned citizens to sign a petition asking that the policy be scrapped.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau South Africa has also raised doubts. “The proposed regulation raises a host of concerns for the online media and marketing industry, not least of which has been the lack of consultation with stakeholders. Having had sight of an earlier, unreleased draft of the policy document, the IAB SA wrote to the FPB to raise its concerns and to request an opportunity to meet the FPB to make formal submissions.”

There is little doubt the policy in its current form can become a reality as is intended by 31 March 2016. Watching what happens to the policy in the coming month will indeed be interesting.

*This article first appeared on MWEB.

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