Attempts to regulate online content bound to fail

Sunday January 24 2016

Sony launches their first Internet television in New York, October 12, 2010.  Japanese electronics giant Sony unveiled a line of television sets on featuring

Sony launches their first Internet television in New York, October 12, 2010. Japanese electronics giant Sony unveiled a line of television sets on featuring "Google TV," which merges online content with traditional television programming. Attempts to regulate online content bound to fail. PHOTO | EMMANUEL DUNAND | AFP  

By LUKOYE ATWOLI
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Kenyans, like the rest of the world, have been accessing Internet content for decades now.

We have learnt how to subscribe to video streaming sites, and download movies, music and other content we are interested in.

On the other hand, Kenyan regulatory authorities have traditionally been very keen on controlling access to all sorts of information in the guise of protecting the ‘vulnerable public’ from unwholesome content.

Books are routinely reviewed for problematic content and may be banned if the powers that be deem them offensive. Similarly, movies and video content are tightly controlled by several agencies, and many have been banned due to what was deemed inappropriate or ‘immoral’ content.

Control has extended to the content of radio shows and advertisements, with the stated aim being to weed out material that does not gel with our national moral code.

The only problem is that this code is largely unwritten, and often depends upon the whims of the regulatory authority’s membership.

A proper moral code might have focused on matters that have a life and death impact on our society and its members, rather than the obsession of a section of our population with exotic entertainment.

We might have controlled the appetite of our national leadership for public funds and resources, as well as the unending lust for power that results in ethno-politically motivated killings every election season.

REGULATING CONTENT

Instead, the various regulators have seen a new opportunity in regulating online video content. The entry of Netflix, a video streaming service based in the US, has given the various agencies the opportunity to flex their muscles.

Threats to the service are flowing all over the place, with some clueless regulators threatening to punish these online content distributors for not respecting our local regulations.

What the regulators don’t seem to realise is that these services, especially the subscription services, are not available to all segments of our society.

One must spend some money in order to access them. Many will require some form of identification and confirmation that the subscriber is an adult, and payment is made electronically using methods accessible only to adults with access to some regular income.

It is difficult to understand why a government would go out of its way to block adult citizens from accessing online content they have paid for.

PROTECTING MORALITY

Arguments about protecting morality can only go so far, because the ultimate guardians of morality in a society are the families that raise the children. Unless we become a nanny state where the government controls everything we do, there is no way anyone can determine our individual moral codes and attempt to enforce some amorphous standard.

As mentioned earlier, even before Netflix, Kenyans were downloading movies, videos and other content online, legitimately or otherwise.

Banning Netflix and YouTube will not stop the highly innovative citizens from accessing content deemed unwholesome by whoever regulates morality in this country.

Instead, as has always been the case, banning a service will only serve to increase its popularity, leading to an underground market involving proxies and virtual private networks, and eventual loss of income by the government.

It might be more profitable for the government to encourage Kenyan producers to get their content onto such global platforms, marketing the country as a bustling investment and entertainment destination in the process.

Atwoli is associate professor of psychiatry and dean, School of Medicine, Moi University; [email protected]