Blocking piracy websites in South Africa is a bad idea

South Africa is looking at various solutions to combat online piracy and copyright infringement, with the incoming Cybercrimes Bill proposing stricter controls on content access.

The new bill deals with offences relating to cybercrimes, seizure and access, evidence gathering, and reporting obligations and penalties.

The bill places an obligation on ISPs to report instances of piracy and preserve any information related to the incident which may be useful to authorities.

Many factions looking to curtail copyright infringement in South Africa have suggested the blocking of certain websites – such as torrent libraries, streaming websites, and other platforms – at an ISP level to prevent South Africans from accessing these services.

The Internet Service Providers’ Association of South Africa (ISPA), however, told MyBroadband that the idea of blocking websites was concerning.

Freedom of expression

“Blocking is technically complicated and subject to false positives, yet it is relatively trivial for consumers and content providers to bypass the blocks, bringing its effectiveness into question,” ISPA said.

“There are also complex freedom of expression concerns which are not for ISPs or copyright associations to resolve and which need to be properly ventilated through the courts.”

For example, the roll-out of DNS-over-HTTPs (DOH) by various providers allows a user to encrypt their DNS queries by simply enabling this function in their browser, circumventing any restrictions.

“This is an example of how securing privacy rights online is impacting the ability to filter and block content.”

ISPA acknowledged that blocking websites may have limited beneficial impact on reducing the accessibility of unlawful content, but labelled the solution “blunt and limited” – with any benefits outweighed by the negative impact.

“It is not clear that there will be any significant benefit to copyright holder associations and their members from this approach and certainly no indication that any positive impact will outweigh the risks to freedom of expression and access to information outlined above, as well as the cost of implementation.”

Government approach

ISPA added that the government has previously considered introducing legislation to combat this problem.

“ISPA notes that Parliament has recently had two opportunities to consider introducing a legislative framework for content blocking in the form of the Cybercrimes Bill and the Copyright Amendment Act, but has declined to do so,” it said.

“We note also that a view has been expressed in the media that ISPs will – under a finalised Cybercrimes Act – be required to report their subscribers for copyright infringement.”

ISPA said that as the legislation stands, ISPs cannot be put under any obligation to monitor traffic in accordance with the ECA.

“ISPA does not believe that this is a correct interpretation of the Bill as it currently stands: rather it is an explicit provision of the Electronic Communications Act that ISPs are under no general obligation to monitor electronic communications conveyed over or stored on their networks – and they may be liable of a criminal offence if they do,” ISPA said.

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Blocking piracy websites in South Africa is a bad idea