Johannesburg - A media alert sent out by Parliament on January 14 about a meeting to discuss possible regulation of over-the-top (OTT) services like WhatsApp was unauthorised, according to an MP.
Last week, Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Telecommunications and Postal Services issued a media alert on behalf of its chairperson and MP Mmamoloko Kubayi about a planned meeting on January 26 to discuss OTT services.
The media alert said that “mobile operators are requesting that Parliament consider passing a policy or regulations of data services on mobile networks such that they generate revenue for carrying the data services on their bandwidth infrastructure”.
The alert went on to say that stakeholders such as network operators, ICT bodies and internet service providers would attend the meeting.
The alert also followed a notice sent to stakeholders which called for the full-day meeting which was expected to discuss aspects such as “necessary policy interventions on how to govern the OTTs”, “regulatory interventions on the guidelines to regulate OTTs” and the “impact of OTTs on competition”.
READ: WhatsApp faces possible regulation in South Africa
But Kubayi told Fin24 that she did not see the January 14 media alert before it was issued and that she did not sign off the communications, despite the alert stating that it was issued on her behalf.
“It’s not authorised; we are sorting it out. It was a mistake; I mean, how do you issue a press release without even a venue of the meeting?” Kubayi told Fin24.
“I thought it was still going to be issued. So, procedurally in terms of Parliament, I need to sign it off. I have not signed it off," Kubayi added.
READ: Petition launched to reject WhatsApp regulation
Kubayi went on to say that the person who normally issues her committee’s media alerts and press statements was not available last week.
Subsequently, the media alert was issued by another member of Parliament’s communications services who did not want to make any comment to Fin24 about the alleged mistake.
Luzuko Jacobs, a spokesperson of Parliament, said he was looking into the matter and following up with the chairperson. But Jacobs told Fin24 that this is the first time he has come across this type of situation.
“Look, in my history here - which amounts to more than 13 years - it is the first time that such an incident has happened.
“But it’s an unfortunate, rare and once-off, and obviously unacceptable incident really,” he said.
Jacobs said that if a media alert deals with, for example, logistics of meetings, it doesn’t always have to be signed off by the chairperson.
“But where content becomes intensive and deals with issues that relate to the programme of the committee, obviously the committee would have to be made aware of that information,” said Jacobs.
Asked whether Kubayi should have signed off on the media alert on January 14 - which contained information about what would be discussed at the meeting - Jacobs said: “Obviously, something like that, you’d want the chairperson to sign off.”
He also said that regardless of who sends out parliamentary media alerts for committees, there is a standard practice where chairpersons have to sign off communications of this type.
In the meantime, the meeting on OTT is still scheduled for January 26 but Kubayi has said that certain statements made in last week's media alert were incorrect.
She said that mobile networks had not asked for the meeting, as first indicated in the media alert. She told Fin24 that she had prompted the discussions on January 26 after she realised from stakeholders at events last year that it had become an issue.
She also clarified that her committee is having a meeting on OTT on January 26 and not hearings, which are more formal. But she did not rule out future hearings on the matter.
“If indeed we see that this is a matter that needs a formal process, we definitely need to impose that,” she said.
“But for now we want test what is it, how is it and from there take a decision,” she added.
Tension in the industry
Chief executives at both MTN and Vodacom last year called for regulation of OTT services like WhatsApp because they said these technologies do not contribute financially to local networks.
READ: Vodacom calls for OTT regulation & MTN targets 'free loading' WhatsApp
“The issue is that I was in two workshops last year where the matter came up and I could see each side took its own corner,” said Kubayi.
“And I felt that if this continues, it’s not assisting anyone. We need to create a platform where we can discuss and think about what is the way forward,” she added.
Kubayi said she called the meeting to avoid a situation where mobile networks and OTT providers clash, which she said could result in South Africans losing out.
“I think that consumers must be taking the centre stage in the discussions,” Kubayi told Fin24.
The public is further invited to attend the meeting, Kubayi added.
DA questions meeting
Meanwhile, Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Marian Shinn, who is the shadow minister for telecommunications and postal services, said the issue of OTT had not been raised in the committee previously.
“My thoughts are that we knew nothing about this,” Shinn told Fin24.
“This issue has not been raised in the committee before and the only information that has been sent to us about this is our draft programme for the whole term, which just has this as a subject: ‘over-the-top technology, all-day briefing’. That is all we know,” said Shinn.
Shinn further said that discussing OTT should not be among the committee’s first course of business for 2016 owing to other pressing issues such as infrastructure and spectrum.
“As far as I’m concerned, this (OTT) is not a priority in South Africa at the moment.
“It’s probably a conversation that needs to be had, but not right now. We have so much on our programme that is unfinished from last year that we need to be tapping,” Shinn told Fin24.
“We actually need to focus on issues that bring down the cost of communications, not add to the cost of communications,” Shinn added.
Nevertheless, Shinn said she would go to the meeting on January 26 with an open mind but that “it’s not an issue that we need to spend the whole day on”.