The fate of online free speech and digital content hangs in the balance, as the department of communications and the Film and Publications Board (FPB) is attempting to impose restrictions on digital channels.
Although the primary mandate of the FPB is to protect children from exposure to adult and other harmful materials, make the use of children in and the exposure of children to pornography punishable, and to provide consumer advice to enable adults to make informed viewing, reading and gaming choices, many feel the board is overreaching.

Richard Firth, CEO of MIP Holdings, says the policy falls incredibly short in a number of areas. “Perhaps the most obvious, is the insurmountable obstacle the FPB will face in trying to implement and enforce it. The number of people needed to ‘police’ all the content, particularly when you consider the vast numbers of digitally enabled South Africans who are active online, is astronomical.”

He says anyone, irrespective of whether an individual or a business, who publishes, or facilitates the publication of online material stands to be held liable by the FPB. “This includes bloggers, SMEs, massive corporates, social networks and news agencies.”

New regulations mean that the FPB needs to approve all digital media, including online learning systems and materials. “The FPB has a system where they charge service providers a flat fee to allow them to publish their content. Those that don’t want to pay the flat fee get charged per medium. Nextflix and Microsoft, for example, refused the flat fee. Netflix therefore gets charged per movie and per series, making it prohibitively expensive — and that is the main reason why local Netflix viewers only have access to a tiny portion of the extensive Netflix library,” Firth explains.

“While that may only be seen as a minor inconvenience, the same applies to books and learning materials. An aspiring author who wants to publish on Amazon, for example, has to hope that Amazon has paid the flat fee, because the additional cost might mean that their book never gets published locally. And those companies that would like to publish learning materials through other platforms might find that the FPB’s fees are too high to justify. Unless a company or individual has all their ducks in a row with the FPB, they cannot publish, and that leaves South Africans the poorer for the lack of content.”

He adds that education and transformation remain the two major pillars on which our country will build a sustainable future for all our people. “A digitally-enabled and educated generation is our best hope of building a globally competitive and prosperous economy,” Firth says. “Every educational organisation in the world is busy strategizing how they convert their course material to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and new digital avenues are making it easier for knowledgeable people to publish content to help the world survive in the new information age. But how can we achieve that when we are actively blocking access to many existing educational media because they have not been approved by the FPB?”

He says that, ultimately, the FPB is preventing kids from accessing the tools, programmes and materials that are available all over the world. “Government is handing out iPads, but there’s little point if learners can’t access half the materials available in the US or other app stores,” he adds. According to just one online educational channel, Wikipedia, the text of the English version is currently equivalent to 2,564.8 volumes of the Encyclop√¶dia Britannica and it consistently grows by 600 new articles every single day.

“The sheer volume of content being generated on an ongoing basis would need an army to control and evaluate. No human department could hope to control and evaluate each and every piece, so the current system is to the great detriment of learners.”

According to Firth, the primary objective of the FPB should be to preserve the Internet as a vehicle for social and economic development, and therefore to create an environment where political, social and economic innovation would flourish. Suppliers, vendors, developers and other stakeholders would then also be able to contribute to the betterment and growth of our citizens.

“Any policy governing books, movies, the Internet and its contents should centre around creating a favourable environment to allow the training and development sector to grow, of which content production is a crucial enabler. The policy should encourage and facilitate an open and competitive online landscape, one that enforces the right to free speech and expression for bother users and platform providers,” Firth says.

He adds that the legislation should be rejected, as it is overly restrictive, presenting the Internet as a threat, as opposed to the empowering, democratising entity that it has the potential to be.