Internet platforms need to tackle anonymity to protect freedom of speech

Former judge warns of individuals and governments hiding behind anonymity protocols, and the danger of over-blocking content.


A former South African constitutional court judge, has called on internet and social media giants to take seriously the issue of anonymity. Professor Catherine O'Regan, a former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and now director of the Bonavero Institute for Human Rights at Oxford University, was delivering her lecture Law's Lost Empire? Freedom of Speech and the Media in the World of the Internet as part of the prestigious Current Legal Problems (CLP) lecture series.

Transparency needed
Professor O’Regan explained while internet publication may be a great boon for freedom of speech, internet publication may also paradoxically be particularly vulnerable to censorship. She said, “The solution to the problem of online illegal content seems to me to lie in crafting an appropriate regulatory response, one that is transparent, despite the problems of scale, one that will allow external monitoring and if necessary review of whether it is working. It is important that any system be designed to prevent undue over-blocking, discriminatory decisions, and in the end to build public confidence in the fairness of the process.” However, she warned of the risk of legislative initiative being used perversely as models to introduce far more sweeping controls over freedom of speech on the internet.

Over-blocking content
The danger, Professor O’Regan warned, is “providers will over block content in order to avoid risks of fines.” This may affect freedom of speech, and lean to “discriminatory blocking of one platform and not others.” She argued regulation implemented with the platforms is the best place to start, “the platforms have the knowledge and skills to handle that scale, breadth and speed better than any institution that could be established by the state or courts” she explained. The lecture was chaired by Court of Appeal judge, The Rt. Hon. Lady Justice Hallett.

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