Is using Steam in South Africa illegal?
MyGaming speaks to the Film and Publications Board to discuss digital distribution in South Africa
PC digital distribution trailblazer Steam continues to grow in popularity around the globe and in South Africa, with SA’s ISPs even striving to host their own local Steam content servers. As an American based service, Steam sells digitally distributed content directly into South African’s homes.
The question is whether or not this content is technically illegal, since it hasn’t passed through the rating system of the Film and Publications Board (FPB) of South Africa, the statutory body in charge of classifying various media, including games.
MyGaming caught up with the FPB to try and flesh out this issue from their perspective. Phumelele Faba, FPB Communications Officer responded to our questions below, replicated unedited for accuracy.
MyG: What are the procedures the FPB follows when rating a digitally distributed application or video game, or a physical retail game?
FPB: A game is rated through a process of classification. This involves a classification committee of at least two people viewing and evaluating the material submitted. The content viewed is then compared to the classification guidelines. The guidelines are published in the government gazette and regularly reviewed through a public participation process.
The FPB will shortly commence a gaming classification pilot project which will involve gamers playing the games for the classification committee in real time. We will then compare these results to the classification results from static content viewing classification and determine the best way forward.
MyG: Certain digital distribution platforms such as Steam, GamersGate, Xbox LIVE UK, sell and deliver games directly to consumers, even though these aren’t rated by the FPB.
Are these digital distributors in violation of South African law?
FPB: The sale of unclassified media content, including gaming, into South Africa, is unlawful. The practice which you describe appears to be unlawful and under similar circumstances, shipments have been detained on our behalf by the SA Revenue Services (Customs).
MyG: Are South Africans who purchase these games in violation of South African law?
FPB: The distributors are held liable for unlawful distribution in the strict sense but South Africans who purchase games in this way are liable to have it seized by Customs upon importation into the country.
MyG: Does the FPB have any recourse in this matter, and would you pursue it?
FPB: Our most effective recourse against the practice you describe is to have it seized by Customs. Customs annually seizes tens of thousands of products on our behalf and our relationship with Customs will soon be further cemented through a Memorandum of Understanding.
MyG: Hypothetically, if a locally based digital distribution platform were to simply begin selling games and applications over their service using an international rating system to indicate age restrictions, what laws would they be breaking, and what action does the FPB take?
FPB: Applications are exempt from classification. Only media content needs to be classified which is broadly defined as “moving pictures”. International rating systems are not valid in South Africa. Our rating system conforms with our local social norms and values and the constitutional requirements of an open and democratic society. The FPB acts against any unlawful distribution. We do this through interacting, where possible, with the distributor to encourage compliance. When this is ineffective the Film and Publications Act allows for criminal prosecutions.
In the first three quarters of the current financial year the FPB in cooperation with law enforcement agencies conducted 600 raids, opened 569 criminal cases and seized 220 493 items.
MyG: Would some sort of recognition of the legitimacy of other international ratings systems be considered as an alternative method of having content rated in South Africa?
FPB: The FPB is constantly in touch with our classification colleagues in various jurisdictions, including PEGI but also distributors such as Microsoft. Whenever a distributor has a demonstrable desire to comply with the substance of our mandate and where it is possible to develop a model, the FPB will always consider such proposals. This includes co-operative agreements with international classification agencies.
The issue surrounding digital distribution into South Africa is clearly quite complicated and likely not as cut and dried as ‘buying on Steam is illegal.’ One wonders whether games that have been rated for retail in SA are exempt from digital distribution rating classification. The issue of seizing digital products is also interesting, as there are privacy concerns.
For now it is probably safe to say that one shouldn’t expect customs officers to come knocking to confiscate hard drives and consoles.
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