Knowledge is the new black.
22 November 2014 01:57 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings

  • Ivo Vegter
A new bill before Parliament will effectively outlaw weather information that is not provided by the state-owned SA Weather Service. Warn someone that a storm is brewing, and you could go to jail for many years, or pay millions in fines. Has the government gone mad?

Talking about the weather is overrated, it is true. It ought to be discouraged, in favour of talk about more important things like football and sex.

However, the more tedious kinds of small-talk ought not to be illegal. And it certainly shouldn't be illegal on the odd occasion that the talk is about interesting weather and it affects your planning for the day.

A bill (PDF) amending the South African Weather Service Act of 2001 (PDF) includes a new section that proposes penalties of up to ten years in prison, or a R10 million fine, if you issue anything that could be interpreted as a “severe weather-related warning”.

It has technically been an offence to issue such warnings all along, but no penalties were prescribed in law. Now we learn that committing this obscure offence could get you a R10 million fine or land you in prison for 10 years. For context, at last count only 36% of prisoners served more time for their murders, rapes and robberies.

Even first offenders can get up to half of this extraordinarily harsh punishment. This, frankly, is astonishing.

A cynic might note that the government is clamping down on exactly the wrong thing: talking about interesting weather. Boring weather remains a legitimate subject for discussion.

However, there is no definition in the law for what constitutes a “weather-related warning”, or how bad “severe” might be. If someone blogs about a storm system making its way across the country, is that a “severe weather-related warning”? If someone warns hikers or beachgoers that winds or waves will pick up dangerously during the course of the day, is that a very serious crime? If a radio announcer repeats a listener-provided report of thunderstorms or icy roads in a traffic report, are they beyond the pale? If I see a tornado heading towards a town, and post it to the internet to warn residents, am I a criminal because I did not obtain the written consent of the SA Weather Service (SAWS) to do so?

The law doesn't say, and it appears to depends entirely on whether SAWS decides to press charges. If it does, it can do so secure in the knowledge that it is protected by a blanket indemnity clause, which prevents people who could have been warned, but weren't, from claiming damages against it.

It also has the added incentive that the bill proposes to allow it to summarily claim commercial damages, if it believes it could have sold similar information to what was provided by the criminal talker-about-the-weather. In practice, such a claim would amount to SAWS's commercial subscription fees times some hypothetical number of users who had access to the alternative service, so it could be very much non-trivial.

The bill doesn't say whether it makes a difference if you collect your own weather data. If my own barometer drops precipitously, and I mention this in the pub (or, more realistically, I send this information to a weather site or a social media account that broadcasts it), it is as much of a crime as using commercial SAWS data to do so.

Those handy internet-connected weather stations used by many farmers and other individuals country-wide? It will now be illegal to distribute their data in your community if the information could be interpreted as a “severe weather-related warning”.

The law appears to be aimed at organisations that provide weather-related information to the public in competition with SAWS. Many consist of voluntary networks pooling their own private data. Others are international agencies that use both private and public data. Most do rather better than the free service offered by SAWS, which consists of a very limited set of temperature and rainfall data for only 100 locations in South Africa, presented via a website that is remarkable only for how hard it is to use.

By contrast, a site like Windguru is a private service that offers far more information in far more detail, including useful data like wind speed, wind gusts, wave height, and cloud cover. It appears from experience to be fairly accurate. Other popular international services include AccuWeather, yr.no and WeatherUnderground. The latter collects live data from a private weather station two houses from where I live. The best SAWS can do at the same price is far less data collected six-hourly in a town 30km away.

These sites may have to shut down their services to South African visitors, who will instead be reduced to the largely useless SAWS products.

Alternatively, you'll have to pay SAWS for your supposedly “commercial” requirements. Granted, you might operate an airline, in which case you would probably consider paying for highly specialised data, but chances are you're just a small-scale farmer, a hiker, or a water-sports enthusiast. You may want to know whether you can arrange a braai this weekend, or whether watering the garden tonight would be a waste of money.

SAWS can't help you with that. Any useful level of detail is considered “commercial”, and the bill gives the minister the power to decree additional services to be commercial at the request of SAWS.

If you're an environmentalist or a concerned resident, and you see a factory pumping smog into the air, you can't tell anyone either. “Air pollution-related warnings” are covered by the same penalties as those that apply to “severe weather-related warnings”.

These draconian restrictions are, ostensibly, justified in a memorandum attached to the bill. Or are they?

The memo claims: “The Weather Service is a member of the World Meteorological Organisation and as such has a legal obligation to comply with and implement Resolution 40 of the Twelfth Congress of the World Meteorological Organisation. In this regard, it is necessary that only the Weather Service must be able to issue severe weather-related warnings in order to ensure that there is only one authoritative voice.”

If you bother to read that resolution, you find that it enjoins governments to “strengthen their commitment to the free and unrestricted exchange of meteorological and related data and products”. It does not even mention, let alone require, a monopoly on the provision of weather-related warnings.

It is perfectly feasible to have any number of people and organisations issuing weather-related warnings, while the law, organs of state, and serious disaster management, commercial or academic users of weather information view only SAWS as authoritative.

In short, the stated justification for restricting the right to provide weather-related warnings, severe or otherwise, to a state-owned monopoly, does not hold water.

Without a hint of irony, section 26 of the original law remains unamended by the bill, although it establishes strict intellectual property rights and usage restrictions over the information provided by the Weather Service. Only to a politician could the wording of Resolution 40, “free and unrestricted exchange” be interpreted to mean “not for distribution without written permission”.

Since the attempt at a justification is so blatantly false, one can only conclude that the bill's purpose is to establish and protect an unfair monopoly on commercial services on the part of a state-owned entity. A spokesman for SAWS once informed me that it operates under “a brutal [Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism] mandate to wean off taxpayer funding”.

Outlawing competition to help it become commercially self-sustaining seems like something that might occur to a politician. After all, innovation and efficiency isn't something with which you want to burden a government department, is it?

The unfortunate consequence, however, will be that citizens will have less information, not more. It will outlaw competition on price, quality and type of weather information that's out there. Commercial innovation in new ways of using weather-related information will be illegal.

That some users rely on alternative services, even though SAWS is able to offer far more accurate information, should indeed trouble the government. But the solution is not to ban what consumers clearly think are better services. The solution is to improve SAWS to exploit its obvious advantage – an unrivalled observation network and extensive data processing function all paid for by taxpayers – to compete.

It is deeply disturbing that this bill would make criminals of the volunteers at the SA Weather and Disaster Observation Service (SAWDOS), who post warnings such as this: “Large and intense storm now active in the Mthatha area. Hail possible. Take care out there. - SAWDOS 23 minutes ago via TweetDeck.”

This organisation happens to be a non-profit service based on a network of volunteers, but there is no reason why a commercial, for-profit organisation shouldn't be allowed to offer exactly the same service if it thinks it can.

In its submission to Parliament, SAWDOS rightly points out that those who will feel the impact of this law the most are the poor who are at high risk in heavy weather, but cannot afford commercial subscriptions to real-time weather warnings from SAWS.

Many small farming or coastal communities also rely on such networks of volunteers or semi-professional data gatherers, sharing information from various sources and keeping each other informed via amateur radio, the internet or telephone. Depriving them of the freedom to do so, when it can often save money, and in some cases save lives, seems perverse.

All this is troubling enough, but it is downright scary that yet another law that is so badly written is tabled in Parliament. As it stands, it can be used to imprison anyone who warns anyone else, using any medium at all, about any weather of a standard of severity that a magistrate will make up after the fact.

This kind of law makes South Africa less competitive, less safe, and less free. One assumes that this is not what its framers intended. If it is, throw the lawmakers out with as much contempt as this law. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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