Sunday, May 06, 2007

In defence of anonymous blogging

Mainstream South Africa, and the Sunday Times in particular, have finally found out about the obscure pastime called blogging.

I even saw an advertisement the other day, for mixed veggies or something Stork margarine where a housewife spoke about how her blog helped her express herself.

Blogging is apparently the new hot topic in South Africa, years after the rest of the world got over the novelty.

What will the South African media discover next- Usenet?

In today's paper, Sunday Times columnist David Bullard joins in, and lays into blogging in general, and anonymous blogs in particular.

Much of his criticism is valid. Many blogs (anonymous or not) are cesspits. The amount of hate expressed on some blogs is shocking.

Of course mainstream journalists also screw things up -the Sudan Red hysteria that the Sunday Times whips up every couple of years is a good example. Mainstream journalists can be complicit in lying to the public, abusing their credibility (real or manufactured) to help drive nations to war.

But I'm not posting this to get involved the "MSM versus blogosphere" debate. I never cared much for the endless navel gazing of many bloggers. I am posting this in response to one of Bullard's remarks:

"I'm told that it’s possible to track down the author of any offensive website and perhaps that’s what the government should be doing instead of looking at legislation to gag legitimate publications. Better still, maybe it’s time the print journalists named and shamed some of the more offensive anonymous bloggers and published their physical addresses."

Now anonymous speech is a thorny topic, and while I know that mainstream journalists are threatened by blogging, encouraging the unleashing of the government's censorship pit bulls is a horrible idea (and who decides what constitutes "offensive" or "legitimate" speech anyway).

Instead of launching into a treatise into the value of anonymous free speech, I will quote the US Supreme Court, which sums up my position on this topic quite succinctly:
"...anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority."

Even members of the ruling ANC resort to anonymous speech when it confronts entrenched interests. The idea that anonymous speech is not somehow "legitimate" is appalling.

In any case, while it is technically possible to unmask anonymous websites, anonymous free speech has been a part of the internet from the beginning, and it will always remain so. If Bullard looked at Usenet archives of South Africa related newsgroups, from 10 years ago, or the comments sections on mainstream news websites, he would see that anonymous and offensive postings have always been a feature of online discourse in South Africa.

I have no doubt that the credibility of anonymous sources (including this blog) is lower than those where the names of the authors are known. This is how it should be, and the average person is smart enough to realize that anonymous sources should be treated with caution, and scrutinized more carefully. However, this does not justify a campaign to discourage anonymous free speech.

I hope that the government's attempts to censor the press fail, but if they do not, I am glad that the internet is available to those who wish to express themselves freely and without fear of retribution. Long may it stay that way.