SA's Internet freedom in trouble

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South Africans should not only focus on government restrictions, but need to become more vigilant about businesses that censor Internet freedom.

Professor Jane Duncan, Highway Africa journalism conference chairperson for media and information society, warned at a journalism conference earlier this month that privately owned Internet Service Providers (ISPs) also play a role in censoring the Internet.

Duncan is former head of the Freedom of Expression Institute in South Africa and is currently based at the school of journalism and media studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

“We need to take private censorship as seriously as government censorship. We need to do much harder thinking about regulations (ISPs) for internet usage,” said Duncan.

She said that ISPs were tasked to regulate the Internet where governments were unable to enforce control via technological tools.

“There is a growing problem of censorship on Internet content worldwide. Governments restrict the Internet in the way that they have restricted traditional media. Some don’t have the technical capacity to regulate. Then they impose liability on ISPs for material that runs through their pipes. This is problematic because they (ISPs) should be neutral,” said Duncan.

“ISPs self-regulate through their own policies. The user cannot make a representation before content is taken down. There is no right of appeal after the content has been taken down. The ISP is not held liable for wrongful take-down of content. They take down and ask questions later.”

Duncan warned that private censorship in most cases remains more dangerous than government regulation.

“Private censorship can be worse than government policy because they don’t come with public (participation) processes,” she said.

Duncan said that ISP terms for removing content from the Internet were also “too broad regarding their restrictions of speech”. One ISP said that it would prohibit websites from publishing content that was “embarrassing”, said Duncan.

Duncan was not alone in her warning about the Internet’s declining freedom and tightening regulation at the 16th annual Highway Africa journalism conference, in Grahamstown.

Dibussi Tande, an award-winning blogger from Cameroon, joined Duncan for a conference panel on Internet freedom. He said that his government has criminalised online content “if it is a threat to public order”. The penalty was six months to two years in jail or a hefty fine.

“These vague terms are used as for repression and censorship… A lot of African countries have laws about repression, instead of helping to develop the Internet as a tool for development,” said Dibussi.

“There are those who say that the Internet should be free because it promotes development. You have others that say the Internet must be controlled because of state security.”

“If there should be any restrictions on the Internet, there should be necessary and legitimate reasons. If we look at the variety of laws that exist in Africa, they don’t meet this standard. The laws are vague.”

Participants at the conference also discussed the safety of journalists online and off-line and the increased criminalisation of bloggers.

It also seemed, to some, that media professionals had not yet fully accepted the Internet as part of their territory that needed to be safeguarded alongside traditional print, radio and TV media.

Most media professionals still viewed the Internet as a tool and failed to defend it as a media outlet linked to their professional interests, such as securing human rights and freedom of expression.

Duncan urged journalists in particular to ensure that Internet rights were protected as telecommunications companies and governments were imposing regulations, at times jointly, that suited them and not the Internet user.

“Journalists must own and take seriously the Internet. It is a little known fact that the Internet is the least free of all the media in South Africa. The film and publications board is part of the home affairs department and it was given jurisdiction of the Internet,” she said.

“To give a government agency jurisdiction of the internet is problematic. Internet freedom in South Africa is in trouble.”

She added: “We are very good as a country to cry when there is state censorship of the media. We are not doing enough about private censorship of the media. We are not getting into what’s happening with the notice and take-down of content on the Internet.”

Alexey Sidorenko, the Russian author of the book ‘New Media Tools for Digital Activists’, meanwhile reflected on the lack of Internet freedom in his country. Russia is currently the second-largest Internet user population in Europe after Germany. But the country’s government has introduced laws to criminalise online publishing.

“The argument for controlling Internet speech was child protection. The government introduced Internet black lists. A website has to be removed within 24 hours if it’s on this list. If not removed, then the ISPs are obliged to block content,” said Sidorenko.

The Russian government has established an authority that monitors the Internet and contacts website publishers and ISPs about ‘problematic’ content.

Harassment and hacking were also used to curb dissidents, said Sidorenko.

“Russia has been marked as an enemy of the Internet by Reporters Without Borders,” he said.

Sidorenko said that countries like Russia and Iran, where political opposition is stifled, have proposed to create “isolated hermetic net islands that would have its own search engines and websites”.

“This is one of the threats that we are facing. It will lead to the erosion of the Internet’s integrity and global interconnectedness… Authoritarian governments that build their political agenda and don’t want to change can choose Internet isolation.”

Sidorenko said that the Internet could become fragmented the same way that newspapers, TV and radio stations already are.

He said that Internet freedom activists were considering means to lobby against businesses that sold online surveillance software and technology that empowers authorities to monitor citizens. In this way, companies have played a role in stifling the freedom of expression in repressive societies that need it most.

“There is a big debate about introducing sanctions against these companies but that contradicts with the idea of freedom. I don’t buy the idea that you can forbid something. It can backfire because then activists won’t be able to buy regular technology. And as soon as you introduce sanctions, there is another new technology on the market,” he said.

The Highway Africa conference gathered media leaders and practitioners as well as media development specialists.