Proposals by the Law Reform Commission of South Africa (LRC) for South African Internet Service Providers’ (ISPs) to block all local and international adult web content will not protect South African children – and similar efforts have not worked anywhere in the world.

That’s the message from the Internet Service Providers’ Association of SA (ISPA), which says blocking Internet content is an exceptionally bad solution to the problem of minors accessing adult content in a country with a history of a muzzled media coupled with recent attacks on freedom of expression.

“We risk being sent down a slippery slope when we are just shaking off the effects of the previous administration’s stealthy attacks on freedom of expression,” says AndrĂ© van der Walt, ISPA chair.

Blocking all adult content by default to protect children is an unimaginative approach when little else has been properly explored, he says, adding that South Africa needs targeted solutions that won’t morph into a generalised Internet clampdown when it suits later governments.

ISPA earlier this year submitted comments on the LRC Discussion Paper 149 – Sexual Offences: Pornography and Children where it referred to its long history of constructive engagement with the Film and Publications Board (FPB) and the fact that it was finalising a memorandum of understanding to formalise and deepen this relationship.

ISPA also referenced its work with the SA Police Service (SAPS), particularly with regard to offenses relating to child sexual abuse material (CSAM), and which falls within the bounds of existing applicable law. With regard to the latter, minors in South Africa are currently defined as being under 18 years of age.

In its submission on the discussion paper, ISPA makes specific proposals for modalities to deal with the harm posed to children insofar as it relates to exposure to explicit sexual content.

In particular, ISPA’s view is that the blocking of content must be provided for in law and only ordered by an impartial and independent court.

Generally, the experience of ISPA members is that technical approaches to content blocking and filtering are simply ineffectual and easily circumvented.

Interventions like the Department of Basic Education’s 2017 guidelines on e-safety, as well as recent curriculum revisions, cover various aspects of online safety in a more holistic manner and will probably be a lot more effective in ensuring child online safety.

“Requiring ISPs to block all adult content by default, to protect children, is a disproportionate interference in the right to freedom of expression and it is simply ineffective,” Van der Walt adds. “Moreover, blocking can only ever be permitted with regard to content that is unlawful. Adult content is not unlawful in South Africa.

“Blocking or filtering of adult content should be controlled by end-users and, with regard to minor children, those end-users should be the parents who are ultimately ideally-placed to protect their own offspring,” he adds.

ISPA is of the view that any Internet blocking or filtering obligations that might pass legal muster in the future should be aimed at the content provider, not the intermediary. It adds that Internet intermediaries like ISPA’s ISP members are currently regarded as “mere conduits” in South African law.

ISPA is a recognised Industry Representative Body (IRB) representing the interests of almost 200 small, medium and large Internet service and access provider members.