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Let's talk about the ramifications of the Internet Censorship Bill

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You might have heard of the Film and Publications Board (FPB). They're the regulatory body that classifies films, video games and so forth in much the same way as you might see an ESRB rating on a film or video game trailer internationally. Up until now, we have always had a rather enlightened classification system despite our somewhat conservative society.

We never had the same issues as Australia for example, which until recently didn't make provision for an R18 rating, capping their highest rating at MA15+. Their laws also effectively banned certain video games post-release if any modifications were made to the game in any way (this is an oversimplification but it's just to give you an idea).

About the proposed bill

South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. How the hell, then did something like the deplorable Film and Publications Amendment bill get as far as it has? If for some reason you don't know what this bill is then know that it is most often referred to as the Internet Censorship Bill.

In theory, it is designed to curtail serious offenses like child pornography and "revenge" porn, however in its current form it also clamps down on content uploaded to the internet, and gives the government the power to censor pretty much everything online.

The bill not only uses broad sweeping statements that can be very loosely interpreted when imposing penalties upon offenders, but it also proposes curtailing the distribution of digital film unless such content is per-classified by the FPB. The terminology is so broad in fact, that it includes user-generate material uploaded on to social media platforms.

This means that if you want to upload videos or images online, even on social media channels such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc, you must PAY a registration fee and register as a distributor! What the actual....? That means that pretty much every person in South Africa with a social media account would need to be a registered member of the FPB.

Now while the attempt to police the distribution of child pornography for example is commendable, the bill states that if you distribute any content, film or video game, that is classified as X18, the user's name, age and address must be captured in a register and the CEO of the FPB will have access to said register.

This is a gross infringement on an individual's right to privacy because, as the DA spokesperson for communication, Phumzile van Damme argued in a recent statement, "This is an unjustifiable breach of the right to privacy, which includes the right to not have your private communications infringed".

The DA in fact have spoken out very strongly against the proposed bill, arguing that, "it gives government wide-sweeping powers to censor content on the Internet".

The reality is that this bill, if it goes through in its current form, is not only unworkable but also basically unconstitutional. It infringes on the aforementioned privacy rights, but also on the powers of what is called a Chapter 9 institution, such as the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), which issues and renews broadcasting licenses in South Africa.

If the broadcaster was not registered with the FPB, ICASA would be forbidden from renewing the broadcasters license (such as Multichoice for example), which is an infringement of section 192 of the Constitution as the FPB would be overstepping its mandate by dictating ICASA's policies.

There are only two aspects of the bill that I'm pretty sure we will all welcome. Firstly, the narrowing of the definition of what constitutes child pornography and the outlawing of revenge porn, however the rest of it is outright nonsense.

We joke about how China censors the use of the internet in everything from search engines to social media, but the passing of a bill such as this would put us on the path to something similar, and take our usually progressive and liberal constitution about a million steps backwards.

Sources: DA, FPB | Main Image Credit: Original photo by Morne van Zyl

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