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    The Borderless Enjoyment of Internet Freedom

    Module 2: Introduction to Digital Rights

    The particular opportunity that freedom of expression online presents is that the right is able to be enjoyed regardless of physical borders.  People are able to speak, share ideas, coordinate and mobilise across the globe on a significant and unprecedented scale.

    The internet as a tool for change: the case of #EndSARS

    In October 2020, young Nigerians took to the street to protest against the notorious brutality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a special unit of the Nigerian police renowned for harassing, kidnapping, extorting and brutalising particularly young Nigerians.  Within days, the protest’s hashtag, #EndSARS, had spread like wildfire on social media and messages of solidarity had been reshared by celebrities, politicians, activists and concerned citizens around the world.(1)

    Before the internet, this would have been next to impossible.  The borderless nature of the internet can lead to international pressure being put on states for rights violations, global campaigns being developed and supported, and a rigorous marketplace of ideas being fostered.

    However, the internet also gives rise to particular challenges that need to be addressed.  Through the internet, the ability to publish immediately and reach an expansive audience can create difficulties from a legal perspective, such as establishing the true identity of an online speaker, establishing founding jurisdiction for a multi-national claim, or achieving accountability for wrongdoing that has spread rapidly online, such as the non-consensual dissemination of intimate images.

    Moreover, once content has been published online it can sometimes be very difficult to remove it.  In the 2019 case of Manuel v Economic Freedom Fighters and Others,(2) a South African High Court ordered the defendants to delete statements that were deemed defamatory from their social media accounts within 24 hours.  However, the deletion of a tweet on Twitter does not necessarily remove it from all platforms, as there are other ways in which the content may have been distributed that are not addressed by the deletion (such as retweets in which persons added a comment of their own).(3) This is a particular challenge for finding effective remedies to claims of defamation, hate speech, or the right to be forgotten.

    Footnotes

    1. BBC, ‘End Sars protests: Growing list of celebrities pledge support for demonstrators’ (2020) (accessible at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54629449). [1] High Court of South Africa, Gauteng Division, Case no. 13349/2019, (2019) (Accessible at: http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZAGPJHC/2019/157.pdf). Back
    2. High Court of South Africa, Gauteng Division, Case no. 13349/2019, (2019) (Accessible at: http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZAGPJHC/2019/157.pdf). Back
    3. ALT Advisory, Avani Singh, ‘Social media and defamation online: Guidance from Manuel v EFF’, (2019) (accessible at: https://altadvisory.africa/2019/05/31/social-media-and-defamation-online-guidance-from-manuel-v-eff/). Back