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Building a Safe Digital Future: Proposals for South Africa’s Next Administration

By Kavisha Pillay

Now that the votes have been cast and the ballots are being counted, early projections indicate that the political terrain of South Africa has shifted quite significantly. Once the dust has settled and a new government has been formed, the next administration will need to urgently confront the ills of inequality, unemployment, corruption, hunger, and climate change. Additionally, it must prioritise efforts to ensure the creation of better and safer digital environments.

This election, as anticipated, highlighted the dangerous impact that disinformation, and the social media algorithms that boost it, can have on democratic processes. From fabricated deep-fake videos of celebrity endorsements of political parties, to out-of-context videos alleging manipulation of the voting process, these tactics aimed to sow confusion and distrust in our electoral system.

The heightened presence of disinformation during our electoral process, combined with a global artificial intelligence (AI) arms race, underscores the urgent need for the seventh administration to address the multifaceted challenges posed by digital threats. Strengthening cybersecurity, enhancing digital literacy, and implementing robust regulatory frameworks will be crucial to safeguarding our democracy in the digital age.

Here are four proposals that would help us to create a safer digital world:

1. Criminalising the creation of dangerous disinformation: the 2024 general election was marred by numerous instances of disinformation. Many of these malicious posts aimed to discredit the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), while others accused political parties such as the ANC and DA of stealing votes. Given this, as well as the role that disinformation played during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the July 2021 riots, it is becoming increasingly important that we introduce legislation that will hold the creators of dangerous disinformation criminally liable. Tight legal definitions will be required for what constitutes “dangerous” disinformation, specifying substantial risks of public harm, including threats to public health, public safety, democratic processes, and social cohesion. This legislation, however, would need to be carefully constructed to ensure that a) it is not used as a tool to crack down on dissenting voices, b) it will not limit freedom of speech, satire, or artistic expression, and c) it will not punish those who spread the information because they believed it to be true.

2. Introducing a Digital Safety Act: this legislation should mirror that of the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA), which aims to create safer online environments by placing responsibility on tech platforms and services to prevent the consumption and spread of harmful content, as well as the sale of illegal goods and services. The DSA compels tech platforms to disclose information about the ads that they display and provide insights into their content moderation policies. Importantly, the DSA also facilitates access to platform data for researchers to study systemic risks, platform practices, and the impact of online services on society. In an era of digital connectedness, the global proliferation of social media platforms, apps, and services necessitates that all countries, including South Africa, adopt laws similar to the DSA. This will aid in protecting users' rights and ensure collective accountability and oversight of the big tech industry.

3. Introducing an AI Act: AI will continue to revolutionise various industries, making it important for South Africa to introduce progressive AI legislative reforms aligned with our constitutional values and Bill of Rights. Again, we can look to the European Union, which recently adopted an AI Act which serves as a comprehensive regulatory framework to ensure the safe and ethical use of AI technologies. It adopts a risk-based approach, categorising AI systems into different risk levels with corresponding regulations for each category. High-risk AI systems face stringent requirements, including risk management, data governance, transparency, and human oversight, while minimal-risk systems remain largely unregulated. The AI Act also introduces an oversight board with Member States’ representatives who will advise and assist the EU Commission and Member States on the consistent and effective application of the AI Act. 

4. Introducing new taxation models and a just transition: despite claims made by the tech bros, AI will not only augment and assist humans in their work but will eventually automate certain jobs. This shift could result in a substantial decrease in income tax revenues, as machines, unlike human workers, do not pay taxes. To address this challenge, South Africa must consider implementing tax reforms to ensure that companies and organisations who are heavily reliant on AI contribute fairly to the tax base. This new taxation model would require these entities to pay a reasonable tax to compensate for the loss in income tax revenue, thereby maintaining necessary funds to support our society.

Additionally, this transition must be managed in a way that ensures a just transition for workers whose jobs may be displaced by AI and automation. This means not only creating a fair taxation system but also investing in retraining and upskilling programmes to help workers adapt to new roles in the evolving digital economy. By doing so, we can potentially mitigate the social and economic impacts of AI-driven automation and promote inclusive growth. 

As South Africa navigates this new political terrain, the next government must rise to the occasion, tackling both longstanding socio-economic issues and the emerging challenges of the digital era. By implementing these proposals, South Africa can take significant steps towards mitigating the threats posed by disinformation and the unchecked use of AI technologies. These measures will not only protect the integrity of our democratic processes but also ensure a safer and more equitable digital future for all people. 

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