South African Net Neutrality under serious threat.

IF draconian plans announced by Deputy Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba to ban all Internet porn are put into effect, South Africa could end up with its very own “Great Wall of China” restricting digital freedom and abolishing net neutrality in the process.

Net Neutrality is not just the idea that all datastreams should be treated equally, but rather the notion that national borders and regional boundaries do not extend to the Internet. In other words, an html page created in South Africa can be viewed in America and vice versa, without needing a passport or incurring an interconnection tax.

Google recently pulled out of China because of concerted attacks on its search engine by the Chinese government. It is the one example of a nation which has shunned Net Neutrality (and open borders)  in favour of a separate “electronic homeland” if you will.

If the home affairs ministry has its way, applying the kind of national hegemony one finds aboard fishing vessels for instance, tier one service providers would be forced to filter information, which includes Google searches, in effect introducing the exact same kind of censorship found in mainland China.

Forcing tier one networks to do the job of the Film and Publications Board, aka the ANC censorship & morality committee, would seriously infringe upon constitutional guaranteed freedoms such as the right to receive or impart information. It would also set a bad precedent by forcing sites such as YouTUBE and MySpace to censor themselves. Although the bill is geared towards pornography, it opens the door to more repressive forms of censorship such as the kind once experienced during the apartheid regime.

Gigaba appears to have met with the Justice Alliance of South Africa (JASA) early this week to discuss  draft legislation on the matter. The document in its current form, as drawn up by JASA proposes that “pornography be filtered out at the tier one service providers to avoid it entering the country.”

The bill is aimed at the “total ban of pornography on the internet and mobile phones.”

According to Myadsl and IOL, Gigaba said it was noted that unlike in the physical world where  a reasonable effort could be made for pornography to be kept away from children, in the online world, pornographic sites were often “parked deliberately next door” to educational sites, often with names almost identical.

Current legislation, particularly the Film and Publication Act, provided for a ban on child pornography, whereas the proposed bill provides for a total ban on pornography on electronic channels using the wider definition of pornography already available in the Sexual Offences Act.

That Gigaba, who claims to have an MA in pedagogics from University of Durban-Westville,  has absolutely no clue how the Internet and the economy works can be seen by his  incorrect comparison of a motor car and the Internet: “Cars are already provided with brakes and seatbelts; it is not an extra that consumers have to pay for,” he said.

“There is no reason why the internet should be provided without the necessary restrictive mechanisms built into it,” Gigaba also said in a proposal that would cost billions, and necessitate the complete overhaul of the industry as we know it.

Are we adults or children?

Exactly how such a “restrictive mechanism” would work is open to debate, but doing so would set in motion a repressive technological environment which would  destroy South Africa’s claim to digital freedom and net neutrality.

A far better solution than placing walls around various parts of the Internet would be to make website blocking software available to the public, allowing individuals to make decisions for themselves. But it is doubtful whether such a solution would satisfy an ignorant, uneducated and backward home affairs department intent on exercising ministerial decree over the entire Internet, thereby placing all websites under the ambit of the Film and Publications control board and the mother grundies at Luthuli House.

South Africa does not have to censor itself. There already exists legal mechanisms for issuing take-down notices via ISPA for sites which contravene copyright law, and an international legal instrument instead of a technological quick fix would thus be far more desirable.

In any event, introducing censorship technology would invariably slow down the Internet while introducing all sorts of problems with vetting what may or may not be watched by an inquisitive public. If the department simply closes down domains without any review process, where is the public interest? Who determines what is politically correct or incorrect on any given day?

It is also doubtful if any of the arguments deployed by the minister are actually about child access to pornography or even so-called “child porn”. What is implicit in the statement by home affairs, is the idea that government alone should be responsible for determining the content  of Internet discourse — the nature of freedom of speech on the Internet, communication itself. Instead of being treated as citizens with equal rights, South Africans are being treated like children, subjects of the Dept of Home Affairs.

It really does reminds one of the dark days when apartheid censors blacked out news copy and published lists of banned publications which included girlie magazines and works by Karl Marx

Gigaba thus appears to have dumped The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Frere in favour of the Collected Works of Joseph Stalin, pulling off a putsch of sorts which could destroy South Africa’s fragile democratic revolution.

Those who wish to censor digital freedom should therefore be told in no uncertain terms  – We are adults, we should decide for ourselves which pages we want to read, which images we wish to view, and which political party should be in power.