Picture: Manjunath Kiran

Durban - The government’s attempt to clean up the internet has met with widespread condemnation.

Some have even likened the proposals to North Korea’s attempt to muzzle the net.

A few years ago the Film and Publications Board decided to regulate the online space.

The board said there were more than a million websites in the country with hundreds of applications available to download locally on cellphones and other devices.

Every minute more than 60 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube.

It’s proposed that online posting of child porn, hate speech and racism be deemed criminal and host sites must have filters to block such content.

Also, those who upload material for commercial reasons will be obliged to register with the board so that the material can be classified, as with movies.

For freedom of expression advocates, it is nothing more than an attempt to limit personal rights.

Micah Reddy of public information advocacy group Right2Know said the proposals were “bizarre” and an unconstitutional move to “control” everything posted on the internet.

“I don’t think they realise the enormity of the internet, and that it is impossible to control everything.”

He said while all major social media platforms tried to adhere to laws in the countries they served, it was impossible to control everything posted.

He questioned how material posted outside South Africa would be controlled by the board.

Reddy said the proposals were aimed not only at major distributors, but also individuals who used blogs, personal websites and Facebook.

He said the envisaged policy would give authorities too much room to infringe on the public’s right to freely receive and impart information – a right enshrined in the constitution.

“According to the policy document, anyone wishing to publish or distribute content will have to first apply for a digital publisher’s online distribution agreement with the board, which will require a subscription fee.

“Once paid, the publisher would have to submit the content to the board for classification before publishing. This effectively is a form of pre-publication censorship, which is not acceptable.”

Also perplexing for Reddy was that board staff could drop in on the premises of those who posted videos and accessed material.

Technology expert and radio jock Aki Anastaciou said the proposed regulations were not practical.

“This needs to be debated because we know it’s going to be difficult to police social media platforms – some might say impossible. If we look at what they’re asking for, it’s also unconstitutional,” he said.

Technology expert Alan Cooper said: “This is scary stuff. It’s like a throwback from our apartheid past and, if passed, will put us in the same league as countries like Egypt, Syria and North Korea.

“Instead of promoting sorely needed digital innovation, this will stifle it. Worse, it will really only affect law-abiding video bloggers, app developers and online entrepreneurs. Bad guys will bypass it with impunity. The good news is I doubt it’ll pass constitutional muster.”

Janine Raftopoulos, the board’s manager of communications and public education, said the board was determined to protect South African citizens from “distasteful” material.

She said the draft policy was similar to legislation governing internet usage in Australia and Brazil.

“Our main mission is to regulate films, especially those with sexually explicit content that can be harmful to children. We need to protect children.”

She said the board was trying to put a lid on sexting and cyber-bullying as well as have greater control over videos posted online.

“When we find content that is not permissible and of an extreme nature, we will notify the police, which could lead to prosecution.

“So an irate boyfriend won’t be able to post intimate pictures or videos of his girlfriend as an act of revenge,” she said.

Asked if the new policy was too intrusive and impaired freedom of expression, Raftopoulos said: “You can’t do as you please without regard for others.”

She said her organisation was working closely with the major social media platforms (Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube) and internet service providers.

Public hearings will be held in KZN in June. - Sunday Tribune