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SA lawyer takes on MXit and blogging critics

May 28, 2007 • Top Stories

Reinhardt Buys, from the Internet law firm Buys Inc., has examined the attacked launched by politician Patricia de Lille, the leader of the Independent Democrats (ID) and provides a break down of the legal obligations placed on website owners regarding defamatory content.

According to a statement on the ID website, de Lille has called on Government to look into urgently implementing legislation that will regulate MXIT and Internet blogging, where members of the public can with impunity slander and defame individuals and organisations they do not like.

Is online anonymity a bad thing?

These reports yet again raise the important question whether or not online anonymity is a good thing or not.

Should bloggers and MXit users be allowed to hide behind nicknames? Surely, people would think twice before defaming others if they had to do so under their real names.

According to Buys the benefits of online anonymity far outweigh the dangers or abuses.

“The right to speak anonymously by using, for example a nickname, is an inherent element of the general right to free speech. For various reasons, people do not want to associate some comments to their true identities. Prohibiting anonymous speech on the Internet would not only be impossible, but would severely restrict the right to free expression.”

Buys strongly supports protecting online anonymity stating that it is incorrect to view it as a privilege, it is actually a right, much like other human rights.

“The fact that certain individuals abuse their right to anonymous speech, does not mean the problem lies with anonymous speech itself. There are many legal ways through which abuses of anonymity may be addressed and trying to prohibit or restrict online anonymity would be akin to trying to prohibit any other human right because a small minority of people abuse the right.”

“Although no South African court has expressed itself to date on the question of online anonymity, a number of foreign courts have repeatedly confirmed the important place of the right to speak anonymously in political and social discourse.”

As far back as 1995, the US Supreme Court ruled in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission that: “Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.”

“The fact that youngsters may use tools like MXit anonymously by chatting with nicknames is an important feature that protects them. These youngsters would be much more exposed to online predators if they were forced to use their real names,” said Buys.

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