/ 23 May 2007

MXit angered by De Lille’s ‘call for censorship’

Cellphone instant-messaging service MXit has expressed concern about Independent Democrats (ID) leader Patricia de Lille’s call this week for legislation to regulate blogging and MXit, describing it as “at its essence, a call for censorship”.

“To hear this statement from a respected whistle-blower who has often championed silent causes is a blow to South Africa’s potential to remain a place where freedom of speech is guaranteed,” said MXit CEO Herman Heunis on Wednesday.

In a statement posted on the ID website at the weekend, De Lille called for such government regulation as “MXit is destroying marriages and allowing children to be lured into traps by sexual predators”. She also frowned upon the countless blogs on the internet “where [anonymous] members of the public can with impunity slander and defame individuals and organisations they do not like”.

MXit’s Heunis said De Lille “took no time to familiarise herself with the technology she is eagerly hoping to control. Regulate blogging? How exactly does she propose this happen? Not even China with all its draconian legislature and resources is successfully able to censor its populous. This is the power of the internet.”

He also pointed out misconceptions in De Lille’s understanding of MXit, which allows registered users to communicate using text messages similar to, but cheaper than, SMSing. It also offers chat rooms, which “appear to have attracted most of Ms De Lille’s ire”.

MXit’s chat rooms are limited to seven simultaneous users and conversations are not saved. No images can be shared over this service, which is used by only 5% of the 3,8-million registered MXit users. Photographs can only be shared between known contacts, “in much the same way that one would send an MMS to a friend”.

“Let’s not forget that a large portion of our user base is previously disadvantaged and MXit offers an affordable alternative to services by other telecommunications providers,” said Heunis.

“What Ms De Lille does raise, and is of great import to MXit, is the role the company plays in protecting its user base, particularly minors. MXit takes the safety of our users very seriously. We have a safety policy and communicate it through every available channel — the website, the forum and each and every time a user enters a chat room. The key to safety in chat rooms is anonymity — keep personal information private.”

MXit plans to launch new chat-room features with moderation tools by mid-June this year.

“I would also like to bring Ms De Lille’s attention to the fact that there are thousands of chat rooms available on the internet, many of which contain and condone unsuitable material for children,” said Heunis. “Modern phone technology enables many of the phones that use GPRS and 3G to access these chat rooms via the default web browser.”


However, De Lille maintains she has been misunderstood. “I am a living example of fighting for freedom of speech,” she told the Mail & Guardian Online on Tuesday. “The first court case in the new South African for the right to freedom of speech was fought by me and won.”

She added: “I am making these comments in the broad context of living in a sick society where the social fabric has been destroyed, and where we struggle to rebuild that social fabric.” She also appealed to parents to be proactive in controlling such services accessed by their children.

Regarding blogging, De Lille’s statement at the weekend referred to an anonymous blog containing slanderous comments about “a famous rugby player, a respected reverend in the church and a prominent entertainer”, as well as ID councillor Simon Grindrod. The matter has been reported to police, and De Lille said the ID will also ask the National Intelligence Agency to investigate.

“Is there not a way, without dismissing the concept of blogging and MXit, to make sure that when people are defamed or slandered, they are able to take the same action to which they are entitled when it happens in print and electronic media?” she said on Tuesday.

Though some South African bloggers strongly criticised De Lille for suggesting any form of regulation of blogs, others sympathised with her problems in trying to identify a blogger making defamatory comments. “Regulation is not necessarily censorship. That is one form of regulation, and there are alternatives,” one blogger wrote.

Commented Heunis: “In my view it is both a right and a privilege in our democratic South Africa to freely exchange views, even some that are not palatable to her or her senior councillors. If there has been slander, we all have recourse to a robust legal system and I recommend that the ID take this road to address the Simon Grindrod’s matter rather than introducing widespread censorship of the public.”