BUSINESS MAVERICK: OP-ED

Government’s communications department is breaking its own law. But don’t panic

By Gabriel and Howard Rybko 2 April 2020

Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash

It’s a mix-up of note, partly funny but also not. Here are the oddities, complications and haphazard implementations of the lockdown laws as they apply to websites.

By now, your website should have a link to the Covid-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal.  If not, you’re breaking the law. This is according to the Department of Communications (DOC), which gazetted this law on Lockdown Thursday.

Its own website sports no such link.

But don’t fret about it, because there’s no punishment for lawbreakers.

Section 5.1.4 of freshly gazetted directions issued by the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) requires that: “All internet sites operating within the .zaDNA top-level domain name must have a landing page with a visible link to www.sacoronavirus.co.za.”

Before decoding this sentence, we had a look at the Covid-19 Corona Virus Portal itself. The site is a worthy effort at collecting stats and carrying important information about the pandemic. Our critique of poor communication and hazy understanding of the way the web works should not detract from this.

Decades of experience in matters web means we can understand the directive. But nothing in our experience can help us understand what the DOC’s intent was.

It’s exasperating, and reminiscent of a school teacher who said, as he tossed back an exercise book, “I can’t understand the workings of your mind.”

Dismissing the why, let’s look at some practicalities so we can advise civic-minded web owners how best to comply with this requirement.

There are, in web terms, three areas of uncertainty and ambiguity that need to be addressed:

Which SA websites are covered by the legislation?

To decode as best we can, the .zaDNA top-level domain (TLD) includes all domains ending in dot za. That mostly affects all .co.za and .org.za sites and a few less trafficked ones, like .net.za, .web.za and so forth. It excludes any of the legion of SA websites running .com, .net, .org and a myriad of boutique TLDs like .joburg, .capetown, .za.com and even .xxx.

Thus, a sizeable chunk of SA websites is safe for now.

Then we get to the phrase “landing page”.

What is the intent of the phrase “landing page”?

In web parlance, a landing page is a dedicated page designed to meet a single intent of a web visitor.

These kinds of purpose-built pages often nest at the end of electronic funnels that feed them traffic driven by Google AdWords or any of a multitude of paid advertising channels – the kind of channels where Google, for example, turned-over $135 billion in AdWords last year, a figure that could make one almost as nauseous as the Covid-19 numbers.

So, let’s take a leap of faith and reinterpret clause 5.1.4 above.

Its intent is probably to say “the home page” of every South African website. Meaning the default webpage that every one of the domains covered in the South Africa domain space leads to.

What is a “visible link” on a webpage?

Unfortunately, on the web, “visible” does not necessarily mean visible to the human eye.

First, by reason of colour. In the early days of search engine tampering, web designers would place inappropriate links on legitimate high-traffic pages, in order to boost search rankings. They would hide these links from web visitors by using colour schemes that made them invisible to the human eye yet clearly visible to Google’s search crawling bots.

Second, the view area of a device that a link is viewed on often dictates its placement, size and even visibility. Some links shrink to fit, change font size and even disappear. This is because many web elements visible on a desktop-based screen are often intentionally hidden on mobile devices because of the limited screen real estate available.

To add more complexity, the directive is silent on where on the “landing page” the said link must be placed.

Don’t panic

“Let’s put it on the main navigation,” was the suggestion of one of our large corporate customers, who called in a panic early last Friday morning.

“You’ve been dipping too deeply into your whisky lockdown stockpiles,” I replied. “Do you know how long the link actually needs to be?”

Adding the words “Covid-19 Corona Virus SA Resource Portal” to your main nav will break your entire website navigation and stuff up your site.

Here’s what to do with your website

Our advice is to pop a link to sacoronavirus.co.za somewhere in your website footer. Make it the same size and font as any of the other links that people like to put down there. 

Which brings us to the legalities…

As with many government initiatives and directives, this onus placed on private South Africans highlights the contradictory standards of the South African government.

Don’t get us wrong, showing this link on your website is clearly the right thing to do as a South African domain-owner, perhaps even commendable. And while the thought of seeing the link posted alongside the red, black and white of http://awb.co.za/ (among countless other visually and ideologically repulsive websites) does make one chuckle, the rub lies in how this rule applies to the rule maker.

The wording of Section 5.1.4 is shoddy; it makes web developers cringe. however, it is the law. But does the poorly worded edict extend to the DOC’s website?

Apparently not. We could not find it – even using a professional web crawler tool (Screaming Frog).

Not only does the DOC website not have its self-mandated Corona Resource link, it also has 22 broken links to external websites and documents. That’s almost 15% of all their external links.

Compliance and punishment, or lack thereof

The directions issued are silent on when compliance is required and what happens in circumstances of non-compliance. This means you can break the new rule with no fear of punishment or reprisal. Unfortunate, because otherwise multiple state websites would be liable to their own sanctions.

This is, however, good news for South Africa’s anti-vaccine websites, which we are certain would not want to ruin their brand image by displaying such a link.

It might also be good news for those shopping for realistic, life-sized sex dolls, who wouldn’t want to their romantic mood spoiled by a reminder of pandemic.

One wonders why the DTPS promulgated such a rule. It’s difficult to think of a South African who would be directed towards www.sacoronavirus.co.za through the use of another South African website – rather than a search engine like Google. Perhaps the government is trying to optimise the URL and increase its internet presence. If that were the case, however, the websites with the most authority would likely be their own.

Government websites have never really been known for their quality. The Eastern Cape provincial site used to be one of the country’s most hideous websites, but got a facelift fairly recently, taking it from execrable to solidly sub-par. Even now, with its new curves and poorly bleached teeth, the site still doesn’t host a link for www.sacoronavirus.co.za.

We could poke fun at governmental web design forever. But the coding issue here was bungled not by a developer but by a lawmaker. This law showcases the things our legislators continually get wrong when writing legislation for the internet (and perhaps even more generally).

Their purpose, perhaps even morally admirable, makes little technical sense. The laws themselves are vague, not articulating when they need to be adhered to and what happens if they aren’t. This makes some level of sense: you obviously don’t want to create laws that are too specific.

But some level of specificity is usually welcomed in the IT community.

Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, the laws often don’t apply to (or aren’t put into practice by) the lawmakers themselves.

The government has handled the Covid-19 pandemic well. For the first time in more than 10 years we are seeing what a real government looks like. But, as it flexes its stately muscles, reminding South Africans who it ostensibly operates for, it continues to fall into the same austerity-induced catatonias. BM

Gabriel and Howard Rybko run digital specialists Syncrony Digital.

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