Government’s inability to harness data to support policy decisions means it cannot protect those that new regulations are intended to protect, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK
A flagrant disregard for facts is an excellent way for a government to embarrass itself. In recent weeks, we’ve seen two examples of absurd new laws proposed or implemented in the name of protecting children, with little evidence to back up the arguments.
The absurdity of the Film and Publications Board (FPB) trying to gain control over all Internet content, ostensibly to help it protect children, is almost as bad as the Department of Home Affairs introducing onerous new travel regulations for foreign tourists, in order to prevent child trafficking.
The latter is particularly offensive, in that it strikes a massive blow against a successful tourism industry, without addressing the scourge.
The travel regulations are based on little more than urban legends, and stem from claims about tens of thousands of women being trafficked as sex slaves for the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cup finals. The 2006 event in Germany supposedly saw 40 000 women trafficked across Europe. Similar numbers were bandied about for South Africa in 2010, with some estimates as high as 100 000. Building on the arguments, an NGO at the time issued an estimate of 30 000 child prostitutes in South Africa – numbers quickly discredited as having no basis in evidence.
The truth is, there was very little cross-border trafficking in either country during the tournaments. In Germany, there were only five reported cases. Most trafficking in South Africa happens from within the country. However, the very fact that no official statistics are available tells us about Government’s inability to base policy on facts.
The same applies to the FPB, which seeks sweeping powers in order “to ensure cyber safety of children and that children are protected from disturbing and harmful content access through social media and mobile platforms”. Considering that the proposed regulations are drawing international attention for their draconian provisions, it would be assumed that the Board, or at least the Department of Communications under which it falls, would have conducted rigorous homework on the issue.
For example, how much content posted in YouTube from South Africa can be construed as “disturbing and harmful”? The answer is, so little that it would barely register. But even that answer is merely an assumption. And the FPB is basing control of, among other, all South African YouTube content, on the same kind of assumption.
We have entered an era of Big Data, in which it is not only possible to gather statistical evidence on any topic, but also to analyse the statistics rigorously and extract insights that guide policy, strategy and decision-making. That is the essence of Big Data.
We could begin with Small Data. A study by the Human Sciences Research Council published in the March 2010 edition of the Development Southern Africa journal included interviews with 300 street children, as merely a sample of children living on the streets. Based on its research, it estimated a high likelihood that there were at least 3200 children living on the streets of Gauteng.
Living conditions are just the beginning of the horrors to which these thousands of children are exposed.
Were there a fraction of the energy devoted to protecting them as there is to undermining tourism and online publishing in the name of protecting children, then government’s commitment to this cause could be taken a little more seriously.
But when you don’t believe in acting on data, why would you believe in acting on the evidence that is constantly available before your eyes?
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.
This article first appeared in Arthur’s Signpost column in The Sunday Times, Business Times section, on 14 June 2015