Concerns over super-regulator for media and telecoms in South Africa

The Internet service provider association of South Africa (ISPA) has raised concerns over the proposed merger of ZADNA, the FPB, and ICASA into a “super-regulator”.

This follows news that the Ministry of Communications and Digital Technologies has started the process to merge several state-owned companies and government agencies.

“The state signal distributor SENTECH will be merged with Broadband Infraco to form one state broadband infrastructure company. Domain name authority ZADNA, the Film and Publications Board, and ICASA will merge to form one regulator,” the ministry said.

“The Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa will be repurposed to establish a state-owned digital fund company.”

Three regulators combined

The .za Domain Name Authority (ZADNA) is a not-for-profit organisation that manages and regulates the .za namespace.

It currently outsources the technical functions of managing the namespace to the ZA Central Registry, which in turn subcontracts a company called Domain Name Services.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is the regulator for South Africa’s telecommunications sector.

It manages the licences required by Internet service providers and broadcasters to operate. It also issues licences to use radio frequency spectrum, or designates unlicensed bands for public use such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The Film and Publications Board (FPB) is the body responsible for assigning age restrictions to media such as movies, TV shows, and games that are published in South Africa.

However, the FPB has made headlines over the years for overstepping its mandate, such as setting an age restriction on a painting titled “The Spear”, which depicted former president Jacob Zuma in the style of a Leninist propaganda poster with his penis exposed.

The FPB also initially banned the South African film “Of Good Report” from being screened for showing a simulated sex act between an underage student and her teacher. The actor who played the student was reportedly 23 years old at the time.

Most infamously, the Film and Publications Tribunal reclassified award-winning film Inxeba “The Wound” as X18 — the same age restriction handed to hard-core pornography. The FPB had originally classified the film as 16LS.

The FPB has also made headlines for its ambitions to expand its mandate to include all content posted to the Internet, and make it the responsibility of Internet service providers to block access to offending content.

Concerns over super-regulator

When asked for its views on the government’s move to consolidate these regulators, the Internet service provider association of South Africa (ISPA) highlighted several concerns.

“ISPA believes there are good reasons to align regulatory functions in the ICT sector but that great care will need to be taken to ensure that this does not cause disruption at a time when there is massive growth in the industry and in demand for infrastructure and services provided by it,” the association stated.

“If the merger compromises the ability of ICASA, in particular, to perform its functions and complete the spectrum and WOAN licensing processes, this will have massive repercussions.”

ISPA also stated that clarity must be provided on the constitutional status of the merged entity and the effect of combining a Chapter 9 institution (ICASA) with the FPB and ZADNA, which have very different origins and are effectively under Ministerial control.

“What has come out at the domain working group, and within ZADNA’s own AGM from ISPA members, is a concern that some of the community participation that’s guaranteed by ZADNA’s incorporation may be lost; that we’re in danger of forgetting why ZADNA was constituted in the way it was,” ISPA said.

“It really depends on how they structure the new regulator, and what scope it has to ensure that Joe citizen — rather than just corporates and IRBs — can still meaningfully participate.”

Now read: ICASA reveals prices and dates for 4G and 5G spectrum auction

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Concerns over super-regulator for media and telecoms in South Africa