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Regulators clash over plan to censor Netflix online movies

The Kenya Film Classification Board CEO Ezekiel Mutua (left) and the CA director-general Francis Wangusi. PHOTO | FILE
The Kenya Film Classification Board CEO Ezekiel Mutua (left) and the CA director-general Francis Wangusi. PHOTO | FILE 

The Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) has differed with the Kenya Films and Classification Board (KFCB) over the handling of American online movie streaming service Netflix, which launched operations in Kenya last week.

The CA Monday said Netflix will not be asked to apply for a local broadcasting licence, meaning the US firm is exempt from local broadcasting regulations that are part of the licensing conditions.

The CA’s decision stood in stark contrast with KFCB’s position that Netflix must be regulated and subjected to Kenya film classifications before it is allowed to sell content locally.

Francis Wangusi, the CA director- general, told the Business Daily that Netflix falls in the category of content providers that do not control transmission of their material - commonly referred to as over-the-top (OTT) -- and are unlike cable companies that transmit own content over managed networks, making it impossible to license them locally or regulate their content.

“Netflix is an over- the- top services provider where subscribers get the content through Internet Protocol, more or less like You Tube and as such we are not going to ask them to come for a licence,” Mr Wangusi said, adding that should Netflix partner with local providers, especially the free-to- air or avail its content on the digital broadcasting platform where its signals can easily be accessed, then it will be required to adhere to local broadcasting regulations.

“Netflix services will be accessed through smart mobile devices such as laptops and on a subscription basis. We will, however, be seeking direction on matters pertaining to the quality of services to the customers,” Mr Wangusi added.

Other than Netflix, Google’s YouTube is also an OTT and has been available in Kenya without regulatory restrictions that the Kenya Films and Classification Board wants imposed on Netflix.

On Friday, KFCB announced that the US firm would not be exempted from the classification law because it will be selling foreign content, adding that it had identified inappropriate programmes hosted by the on-demand service provider that are wrongly rated for children aged 13 years.

Ezekiel Mutua, the KFCB chief executive, insisted that Kenya’s membership of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) gives it the mandate to fully regulate and govern its cyberspace, making Netflix no exception.

“We do not want to scare investors. We have not made a decision yet (to penalise Netfix for bringing content without submitting them for classifications), but we have written to them raising our regulatory concerns. We will announce once they write to confirm their availability,” said Mr Mutua.

He further noted that it is “very shocking and almost irresponsible” for Mr Wangusi to say that Netflix cannot be regulated as cases of extreme radicalisation and security threats are no longer in the physical space, but in the cyber space.

In response to the Business Daily queries, Netflix said services delivered over the Internet present all sorts of novel questions for policymakers.

“Netflix is an Internet television network, not a traditional broadcaster. The expanded availability of Netflix has been welcomed around the world by consumers and governments alike,” Netflix said in an email response.

“To watch anything on Netflix, consumers have to subscribe. We empower consumers to make smart viewing choices by providing details on the titles on Netflix, including ratings and episode synopses. We also provide parental controls,” the US firm said of the need to get local classifications. 

Meanwhile, technology experts queried Mr Mutua’s stand dismissing it as ill-informed and without basis. Many raised questions as to whether KFCB has the mechanisms required to block the content it considers in breach of the Kenya film classifications requirements and why it has not been rating and classifying content from other OTT providers such as YouTube

Mr Mutua said a meeting held late last year with internet search machine, Google, inter-government agencies, United Nations agencies, among other stakeholders on proposed development of special tools for blocking dangerous websites accessible to Kenyans would address that concern.

He, however, said that a cross-jurisdictional meeting with the Communications Authority had been confirmed for tomorrow (Wednesday) where modalities of dealing with online content would be discussed at length.

Existing crack codes pose a challenge to regulate IP (Internet Protocol) based websites such as Netflix but KFCB is committed to safeguarding national values and morals, he said.

“We would rather make a mistake on the side of caution rather than regret later. This is a sign of commitment to national values and nothing personal.” Mr Mutua said.

“As regulators, we should instead pull up our socks and find mechanisms to regulate online content and the dangers that come with it.”  

Netflix offers unlimited access to movies, documentaries and series at monthly rates of between Sh815 and Sh1,222, a significantly lower fee than the rate cards of Kenyan pay-TV firms Wananchi Group and MultiChoice, which operate Zuku and DStv respectively.

The streaming services provider with a high uptake in the US has hit audience ratings and slashed advertising revenues for cable and satellite channels. It boasts about 74 million subscribers mainly in the US and Europe.

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