Are the BRICS building legal barriers to social media?

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Are emerging market countries, notably the BRICS, clamping down on internet freedoms? Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vincent Cerf warned last year of an “authoritarian” trend particularly among certain emerging market countries.

We know about China. Western social networks are often blocked by a series of filters colloquially called the Great Firewall of China. Authorities in the Asian superpower are also clamping down on native social networks such as the incredibly popular microblogging site Sina Weibo.

Most recently, China passed legislation requiring social networks to verify their user accounts, purportedly in an attempt to put a halt to the spread of false online rumours.

Another BRIC country to look at online censorship is India. The Indian government last year requested that a number of social networks and other online powers, including Google and Facebook censor objectionable material. Many saw the move to censor social media as a threat to freedom of expression.

Brazil, probably the most liberal of the emerging market club, has also joined the party to some extent. Brazilian’s “censorship” hand has been somewhat lighter however, looking at blocking tweets that warn people about road blocks and speed traps.

Authorities in Russia have never blocked social networks outright, but there has been suspicion that a number of monitoring sites were deliberately hacked during last year’s contested election. Mass demonstrations, organised primarily over Facebook and LiveJournal, followed. The country also asked social networking sites to censor protester content during this period.

Now in South Africa, the last and smallest of the BRICS, there seem to be a disturbing move towards online censorship, with some critics worried the country could find itself back in an Apartheid-like era of freedom of speech restrictions.

The latest voicing of this concern has seen a group of media players taking government to the Constitutional Court (South Africa’s highest legal authority) over amendments to the Film and Publications Act of 2009, which it believes is poorly written piece of law that could turn every day online users into criminals.

As the amendments to the law stand, all publications — barring newspapers which have their own regulatory body — would have to submit sexual content to a board for approval. The problem is that its definition of publication includes anything that appears online, including social media. This means that if you wanted include a sex joke in a blog post, tweet about a rape case or post a Facebook update about an Aids education programme you would have to submit to the board to be classified. Failing to do so would be a criminal offence.

Greg Palmer from a legal advocacy group called Section 16 believes that “the intentions of the amendments were sound” but that not enough thought about the nature of online and social media went into them.

The case comes amid continued protests against a widely disputed Protection of Information Bill and proposed media tribunal. The bill, currently going through the South African parliament, aims to make the leaking and publishing of classified information a criminal offence that could lead to a jail sentence of up to 20-years

The Film and Publications Act is one reason South Africa dropped from the 24th to the 26th most free internet country on earth in 2011 and its vague terminology means that it is clearly open to abuse.

The South African government has made it clear that it wants greater levels of control over the media with the Protection of Information Bill. The poor wording of the Film and Publications Act means that it could, if it decided to, censor not only the media but its own citizens

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