South Africa introduces new guidelines to curb harmful content on Facebook, WhatsApp


The Flim and Publication Board (FPB) of South Africa has taken a significant step to address the growing concern of online harm by introducing new draft industry codes and guidelines. The primary objective of these regulations is to create a safer digital environment for users within the country.

The new codes and guidelines are organized into three main parts, each addressing a distinct aspect of online content:

  1. Classifying Harmful Content: This part focuses on defining criteria and guidelines for classifying content that could potentially be harmful. By establishing clear criteria for identifying harmful content, the FPB aims to ensure that online users are protected from exposure to material that could be damaging or inappropriate.
  2. Preventing Online Harm: The second part of the regulations aims to prevent online harm by outlining guidelines and measures that platforms, content creators, and users should adhere to. This could encompass a wide range of issues, including cyberbullying, hate speech, explicit material, and misinformation. The guidelines are intended to encourage responsible online behaviour and discourage the dissemination of harmful content.
  3. Guidelines for Peer-to-Peer Video Sharing: With the rise of peer-to-peer content-sharing platforms, it’s crucial to establish guidelines for responsible sharing. This part of the regulations provides guidance on how individuals should engage in peer-to-peer video sharing while respecting the safety and privacy of others.

The draft regulations for public comment have been open until September 8, 2023. This decision highlights the importance of collective input and stakeholder participation in shaping these guidelines. This approach allows a diverse range of perspectives to be considered, ensuring that the regulations are balanced, effective, and well-suited to the digital landscape of South Africa.

Striking a balance during online engagement

By implementing these regulations, the FPB aims to strike a balance between freedom of expression and the need to protect users from potential harm in the online sphere. The initiative reflects a broader global trend of governments and regulatory bodies recognizing the significance of online content regulation in the digital age. It remains to be seen how the final versions of these codes and guidelines will influence online interactions and content-sharing practices in South Africa.

The regulator defines harmful content as various categories, such as child pornography, “revenge porn,” hate speech, and content that supports war propaganda, incite imminent violence, advocates hatred based on group characteristics, or harm. This also extends to content causing emotional, psychological, or moral distress to individuals through various mediums like films, games, publications, and online platforms.

South Africa's FPB introduces new guidelines to curb harmful content online
FPB South Africa

The regulator, known as the Flim and Publication Board (FPB), emphasizes its commitment to enhancing its regulation of harmful content. This commitment is prompted by the increasing prevalence of cases involving child sexual abuse material, which the FPB encounters on a daily basis. As a result, the FPB acknowledges the necessity of strengthening its oversight and regulation to counter the proliferation of such content.

Additionally, the FPB’s initiative aims to create a more secure and responsible online environment in South Africa by establishing clear boundaries on what is considered harmful or prohibited content. By addressing issues like child exploitation, hate speech, and content that incites violence or harm, the regulator seeks to safeguard individuals from exposure to distressing or damaging material. This effort underscores the growing recognition of the importance of effective content regulation in the digital era.

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About the proposed regulations.

The proposed regulations entail compelling online platforms to incorporate measures aimed at reducing online harm. The regulations outline a set of minimum standards that online entities are obligated to follow:

  1. Online platforms are prohibited from hosting or distributing content that is deemed prohibited.

2. Immediate suspension of access to prohibited content is mandatory if it’s detected on their platform(s).

3. Online entities are required to establish accessible consumer support through various communication channels, including email, phone, and WhatsApp.

4. Systems for consumers to file complaints concerning prohibited content must be implemented.

5. Incidents of prohibited content must be reported to the Flim and Publication Board (FPB).

Prohibited content includes explicit sexual conduct that disrespects human dignity, explicit depictions of domestic violence, and graphic visual portrayals of extreme violence. This category also includes subjects like bestiality, incest, rape, and any form of degrading behaviour.

In October 2022, the FPB issued a legal notice to South African Internet service providers (ISPs), mandating compliance with amendments to the Film and Publications Act. ISPs were given three months to register with the FPB and provide reports about prohibited materials within their networks. They were required to furnish evidence of their preventive measures against hosting and distributing prohibited content.

The South African Internet Service Provider Association (ISPA) chose not to contest the FPB’s directive and instead instructed ISPs to carry out registration as per the regulator’s requirements. Dominic Cull, a regulatory expert and the founder of Ellipsis, criticized certain aspects of the FPB Act amendment, particularly its unclear provisions relating to incitement and hate speech.

Cull, who also acts as ISPA’s regulatory advisor, noted that ISPs have technically been obliged to register under the FPB Act since 2004, although enforcement has not been consistent. He emphasized that those meeting the ISP definition have no alternative but to comply with the registration obligation.

Guidance on video sharing with peers by FPB

The FPB released draft guidelines regarding video sharing among peers in South Africa, offering consumers insights into how to engage in video sharing across different platforms within peer groups.

Platforms facilitating direct content sharing between two users without intermediaries are classified as peer-to-peer platforms. The FPB has, however, broadened this description to include direct messaging and private groups, such as those found on Facebook, WhatsApp, or Telegram.

According to the Film and Publications Act, the dissemination of private sexual photos or videos is prohibited under the following conditions:

  • In the absence of consent from the individuals featured in the content.
  • When there is an intent to cause harm to the person depicted.

The FPB’s outlined guidelines for sharing photos or videos on peer-to-peer platforms include:

  • Respect for copyright and intellectual property rights.
  • Privacy considerations into account.
  • Ensuring the content conforms to legal standards.
  • Adhering to the specific user guidelines and terms of service of each platform.
  • Obtaining proper consent before sharing content.
  • Reflecting on context and appropriateness.
  • Providing accurate attribution and recognition.
  • Prioritizing user safety and well-being.

The South African government believes that the FPB’s principles and codes will be carefully followed and that the frequency of online harm will decrease as a result.

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