Network policy in South Africa: censorship infrastructure, intelligence services and surveillance on the rise
It is well known that a look beyond the rim of one’s plate has never done any harm. The foreign correspondents of the Africa department have looked around South Africa, followed the discussions on net policy there, absorbed some of the net culture and took a look at some current legislative projects.
South Africa belongs to the so-called BRICS states, i.e. the economic middle powers, together with Brazil, Russia, India and China. The country has been by far the richest state in Africa for several decades. Telecommunications infrastructure is concentrated in urban areas and its use is strongly dependent on income. The key to the Internet is often the smartphone, but not everyone can afford it. In the cities, a large part of the population is online and networked via social media platforms, but many people have no access to the broadband Internet at all, have no hardware or are illiterate.
After the end of apartheid, the country gave itself a modern, very liberal constitution. However, there is still a large educational gap and inequality of opportunity. Of the more than one million children who started school in South Africa twelve years ago, less than half graduated from secondary school. About half of the population is also underemployed or unemployed.
Nevertheless, it is one of the African countries to which comparatively high foreign investment flows in sectors of the economy related to networks, infrastructure and technical education. An example of this is the “African Skills Initiative” of the US company IBM, which has just opened the first Cloud Data Center in South Africa.
For months now, there have been disputes about how private commercial platforms should be regulated. In South Africa there is a threat of an Internet censorship law that is unparalleled on the African continent.
Every film, every game, every publication on social media platforms should be classified in advance. At the same time, users should be encouraged to register as content providers. This applies to bloggers or social media users who upload content, regardless of whether they are large commercial companies or diarists with cat photos.
In addition, a Film and Publication Board (FPB) is to be formed to deal with uploaded content from non-registered persons and to evaluate and classify their videos or audio files:
Upon classification, the Board shall dispatch a copy of the classification decision and an invoice payable by the online distributor within 30 days […] In this case, an “online distributor” might be a South African ISP, despite the fact that they might have no connection with any “global digital media platform” who might be hosting the content. And no provision seems to be made for content uploaded via non-local services. In either case, the draft presumes that ISPs have both the capacity and the will to take down the original video, and to upload a new, classified, version containing the FPB’s logo.
A South African Internet Service Provider (ISP) would thus be faced with the necessity of setting up a censorship infrastructure and replacing content with classified versions. In general, however, the draft is criticized for the blatant encroachments on the right to uncensored free speech.
An increasing number of surveillance activities against journalists, political activists and human rights activists are listed in a report published last year: Big Brother Exposed (also available as pdf). In particular, the various South African secret services are accused of taking targeted action against NGOs and activists.
Moreover, the important position of the “Inspector General of Intelligence” has been unoccupied for many months and thus the control of the secret services is no longer guaranteed. Recently, however, it was announced that the long delayed election of the intelligence inspector would finally take place. However, the currently proposed candidate, Cecil Burgess, is criticized as not independent and close to the secret service. South African authorities also use IMSI catchers, which are called “grabbers”. Whether and to what extent the deployment is lawful is still unclear.
NGOs that criticize the machinations of the secret services are being treated with harsh bandages. One feels reminded of reports in connection with Russia, when a civil society initiative like Right2Know is even claimed in the South African parliament certain NGOs, specifically Right2Know, were known to be agents working for foreign governments.
However, defaming critics as sock puppets controlled by foreign powers does not yet answer the questions that arise about the legality of targeted surveillance measures. The draft Communication-Related Information Act (RICA) would oblige telecommunications companies to store all users’ metadata for up to five years in the future.
After the so-called “National Communications Centre” had been investigated by a commission of experts (“Matthews Commission”) in 2008 and the surveillance technically administered by it had been declared illegal and unconstitutional, the institution remained in place. Nor does RICA contain any regulation of the monitoring centre. Moreover, the entry into force of the first South African Data Protection Act (“Protection of Personal Information Act”) is still being delayed.
There are some parallels in the political history of South Africa and Germany, which for many years played an inglorious role as a supporter of the apartheid regime. But the end of apartheid and the fall of the Wall are close in time and were drastic changes in their respective societies more than twenty-five years ago.
Both here and there, the electorate is not entirely satisfied with the political developments since then – and expresses this unvarnishedly via social media channels. Due to the fact that (in comparison to Germany) Twitter is mainly used by significantly more politicians, journalists and activists, the political discussions are fast, far-reaching and quite violent – and then often nationwide news.
A national controversy over intolerance, racism, xenophobia and hatred was sparked in January by the example of a racist Facebook post from Penny Sparrow, a real estate agent. Her post, in which she compared blacks to monkeys, quickly became viral and trendy for days. The debate culture that unfolded afterwards is hardly comparable in its vehemence to German practices on the Internet.
Arguably, the dispute resembled the discussions about hate speech in other countries. It also dealt with legal questions of the punishability of racist, sexist or homophobic language and whether there might not be a danger that a ban would also include requests to speak, for example to criticise or expose racism. The definition of “illegal content” that is to be removed must of course be considered on a case-by-case basis. But where exactly the boundary to illegality is crossed remains one of the key questions.
However, network policy topics are rarely the focus of national discussions. The main reason for this could be the political situation in South Africa, which is now becoming more unstable again after Jacob Zuma’s rise in 2009. At present, student protests against tuition fees seem to be escalating into unrest.
However, many network policy issues that have been controversially discussed in other countries for years have received little attention from a broader public, such as the issues of network neutrality, but also the mass evaluation and economization of human everyday communication. An exception to this are only a few aspects of the increased striving for security (“securitisation”) in the area of police and secret services, which can be observed in many countries and is also a controversial topic in South Africa.
The absence of public discourses on network policy does not necessarily have to be a disadvantage, at least for some areas of technology policy. William Bird, Managing Director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), puts it this way: The fact that we lag behind the rest of the world has provided us with the opportunity to learn from international best practice.
If you would like to get to know South Africa a little better, we recommend the film “Tsotsi” (Trailer) from 2005. It is one of South Africa’s most successful films and received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005. Tsotsi” means “Rowdy” or “Gangster” and is set in a township of Johannesburg.