Focus on internet and human rights in South Africa: Interview with Jane Duncan

By Alan Finlay Publisher: APCNews     JOHANNESBURG,

“South Africa has adopted some of the more problematic elements of the new post-9/11 surveillance regime, many of which have been authored in supposedly liberal democracies, while failing to incorporate key safeguards that may have been incorporated in these democracies,” says Jane Duncan in an interview related to a forthcoming report she wrote for the Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch 2011 Update I).

APCNews: South Africa has a relatively low internet penetration rate — only 20% in 2011 — and there seems to be little practical initiative to change this. Given that the majority of the population has nothing to do with the internet, how significant do you think internet rights are in the socio-political landscape of the country at the moment?

Jane Duncan: I think that internet rights are still significant, notwithstanding the relatively low penetration rate. One of the reasons why the penetration rate is so low is because internet rights are not taken seriously enough, including the right to available, accessible and affordable internet connectivity. There is no doubt that media consumption habits are going to change quite fundamentally in the future, with an increasing reliance on the internet as a source of information and as a communicative tool. It will become an important delivery vehicle for information and debate on other development-related issues, such as education and health. Failure to take internet rights seriously because the medium is still fairly underused is misguided as it will condemn many South Africans to the periphery of the new public sphere, exacerbate existing inequalities and hamper service delivery even further.

APCNews: You argue in your report that “South Africa largely respects online freedoms, and to this extent the country could be considered to have a free online media environment”. But you also point out that legislation, such as laws allowing interception of communications, lack the transparency found in comparable environments, such as the United States. To what extent do you feel that the current spirit of governance guiding ICT policy-making around online content is taken from liberal democracies, versus more repressive states? I’m also thinking here of the recent moves by the ANC to effect a practical content censorship around the Jacob Zuma/Brett Murray saga.

JD: It is difficult to know which governments are more liberal and which ones more repressive on online issues relating to national security, pornography and intellectual property protections. Countries that have long been considered liberal in the global media freedom ratings have slid backwards, especially since 9/11, as well as since the onset of the global financial crisis and the resulting rise of mass struggles. In relation to national security, South Africa has adopted some of the more problematic elements of the new post-9/11 surveillance regime, many of which have been authored in supposedly liberal democracies, while failing to incorporate key safeguards that may have been incorporated in these democracies. So while I don’t think that South Africa has deliberately gone out and sought international precedent from outrightly repressive regimes, they have shopped selectively in the legal and policy frameworks of more democratic regimes.

APCNews: You point out that internet rights in South Africa lacks a coalition of advocates that can lobby for more transparency and analysis, and increased awareness of rights. Why do you think internet rights advocacy in this country has been relatively dormant, compared to lobbying for media rights? Practically, do you think internet rights are as important as other media rights at the moment?

JD: Internet rights are not as important as media rights at the moment, but any freedom of information lobby with some foresight needs to recognise that the internet will be at the heart of future media systems, and they need to adapt their advocacy strategies accordingly by including an internet component. Otherwise they risk being overtaken by events.

APCNews: You point out that ISPs and other commercial content providers actually attach wide-ranging clauses governing acceptable online content to their services and products — most of which contravene the Constitution. They also tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to content take-downs, and are not legally committed to a transparent deliberation process. Do you feel that businesses could take a more proactive approach to rights advocacy? Why do you feel they haven’t so far?

JD: It is not in their commercial interests to take a more proactive approach. By capturing the self-regulation of internet content, they can ensure that their own interests are put before those of internet users. They will not change unless there is external pressure from internet users and lobby groups, which is also why a coalition around internet rights is needed. In this regard, the media freedom and diversity sub-committee of the Right 2 Know campaign is initiating a right to call/data/sms campaign to focus especially on the right to affordable access to voice and data. This is a move in the right direction.

Read the special edition update of internet rights in South Africa

Read the full GISWatch 2011 special edition update 1

Photo by InternetSociety. Used with permission under Creative Commons licence 2.0

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