media update’s Aisling McCarthy explains what this ‘Internet censorship’ bill will cover and exactly what critics are concerned about.

First things first, what is the bill all about?

The Films and Publications Amendment Bill, at face value, is all about regulating content that is deemed ‘inappropriate’. Sounds great, right?

Well … Critics are not so sure we need a pesky bill rooting around in our content and judging what is and what isn’t appropriate. Plus, there are concerns that this bill will be used as a means of censoring online content.

Pros of the bill

This bill aims to introduce a number of changes, including the regulation of the online distribution of content as well as stricter rules to protect children from harmful and disturbing content.

The bill also aims to put a stop to revenge porn, where sexually explicit photographs and videos are distributed without consent as ‘revenge’ after a break up.

Under the bill, “any person who knowingly distributes private sexual photographs and films without prior consent and with intention to cause the said individual harm shall be guilty of an offence and liable upon conviction.”

The bill also clearly wants to clamp down on hate speech. Any person who knowingly distributes content — on any medium including the Internet, social media, films, games and publications — that incites violence, advocates hate speech or amounts to propaganda for war, shall be considered guilty of an offence.

The penalty for this? Expect fines of up to R150 000 or up to two years imprisonment — or both.

Internet service providers (ISPs) are also responsible for keeping tabs on content. The bill says that any ISP that has knowledge that its services are being used for hosting or distributing child pornography, war propaganda, incitement of violence or advocating hatred based on an identifiable group characteristic will be required to remove the content, or be liable for a fine.

Cons of the bill

Many people have cited that the bill is poorly written, leaving much room for interpretation. In an article for BusinessTech, Dominic Cull from specialist legal firm Ellipsis said that the bill was extremely badly written.

“It’s embarrassing that the document, in its current form, has gone through parliament and made its way to the president.”

Cull continued: “One of my big objections here is that if I upload something [that] someone else finds objectionable, and they think it’s hate speech, they will be able to complain to the FPB.”

If the FPB feels that the complaint is valid, then they can lodge a takedown notice and have the offending material removed. The problem with this is that Cull believes that the FPB, which is appointed by government, should not be making decisions regarding what is and isn’t hate speech under the South African Constitution.

“When we can see that the courts struggle with these issues, there’s no place for politicians directly appointed by a minister to deal with them,” he said.

A press release issued by the Internet Service Providers’ Association echoed this sentiment, saying: “Unfortunately, while the Bill sets out a framework for classification of online content which could be useful, this is lost in vague definitions and ill-considered attempts to expand the role of the Film and Publications Board into an Internet policeman.”

Is censorship imminent?

Many of the amendments have come under severe scrutiny from both people in the media industry as well as members of the public. There are growing concerns that this bill could — and will — be used as a means for censorship of online content.

Speaking to BusinessTech, legal expert Nicholas Hall said that the while the bill is not intended to explicitly censor content, extending the powers of the FPB will have the effect of censoring certain content, as seen with the movie Inxeba.

Further, Hall said that the FPB now has the power to classify — and potentially ban — content distributed through the Internet, including:
  • Films
  • Games
  • Newspapers, books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters or other printed matter
  • Any writing of typescript that has in any manner been duplicated
  • Any drawing, illustration or painting
  • And print, photograph, engraving or lithograph
  • And record, magnetic tape, soundtrack or any other object in or on which sound has been recorded for reproduction
  • Computer software that is not a film
  • The cover or packaging of a film
  • Any figure, carving, statue or model
  • Any message or communication, (including visual presentations) placed on any distributed network including, but not limited to, the Internet
Love it or hate it, the bill is on its way to President Cyril Ramaphosa for approval. Chances are, the ‘Internet censorship’ bill will become a part of South African law in the near future — so all Internet users, content producers and ISPs need to keep an eye on it as it develops.

Do you think Internet censorship is something that South Africa needs? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Now that you’re all clued up on the ‘Internet censorship’ bill, why not delve into the POPI Act by reading our article, Understanding the POPI Act: 10 FAQs answered.