Is ending anonymity the price to pay for online safety?
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s suggestion that the government could look at restricting online anonymity in the wake of the killing of veteran Conservative MP Sir David Amess highlights the difficult balance lawmakers must strike in regulating powerful social media companies to reduce online harm while protecting those who need to hide their identity to speak truth to power.
The pandemic has pushed people to conduct their business and social interactions over the Internet like never before. Figures from Ofcom in June 2020 showed UK adults are spending more than a quarter of their waking day online, the highest on record. This increased usage and a series of high-profile incidents of online abuse in recent months—including of Black England football players--has added urgency to the debate about the government’s draft Online Safety Bill.
One idea that has gained traction in recent weeks, especially in the wake of the killing of veteran Conservative MP Sir David Amess, is that online anonymity should be limited or removed.
Patel said in October the government wanted to make "big changes" through its online harms legislation, including a fresh look at anonymous posting and work on encryption used to keep messages private on messaging apps. However, she told the BBC that any policy moves on online anonymity had to be proportionate and balanced.
UK lawmakers have long called for social media companies to do more to tackle harmful online content. In October, 50 Conservative MPs, including Steve Baker, Karen Bradley, and Robert Halfon, signed an open letter that argued that companies like Facebook, which recently changed its name to Meta, and Twitter have failed to take, “decisive action on online abuse.”
The testimony of Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower, has increased pressure on the social media giants. In late October she told the cross-party Online Safety Bill committee — which is scrutinizing the draft legislation — that, “Facebook has been unwilling to accept even little slivers of profit being sacrificed for safety.”
Conservative MP Damian Collins, the chair of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill committee, told The House that anonymity should not be removed completely, but social media companies should have sufficient information on users so they can identify them to the police if required.
“Not putting your real name to an account should give you no protection from an investigation into terrorist, racist, homophobic, or misogynistic messages you send,” he said.
Groups have argued that online anonymity also provides vital cover for bona-fide whistle-blowers and pro-democracy and rights campaigners
Lawmakers have considered the issue of online anonymity before. Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie led a backbench debate on the issue in March. She outlined three steps to prevent, deter and reduce online abuse, including giving social media users the option to verify their identity and making it easier to see whether a user has chosen to verify their identity.
Katie Price, the reality TV personality, launched an e-petition urging the government to make verified ID a requirement for opening a social media account, after her son, Harvey, had been subject to abuse online. After the Euros 2020 final, which saw Black England players receive a barrage of abuse online after losing to Italy, support for the petition grew to almost 700,000 signatures by the time it closed in July this year.
The government responded to the petition in a statement, saying, “The Online Safety legislation will address anonymous harmful activity. User ID verification for social media could disproportionately impact vulnerable users and interfere with freedom of expression.”
Some campaign groups have argued that limiting anonymity would have little impact on online abuse, as many perpetrators make no effort to hide their identity, while others operate from abroad beyond the reach of UK legislation. Others, such as HOPE not Hate, said that restricting anonymous or pseudonymous accounts could adversely affect people who would only seek help online if they could keep their identity secret, such as young people exploring their sexuality, or victims of domestic violence.
Some groups have argued that online anonymity also provides vital cover for bona-fide whistle-blowers and pro-democracy and rights campaigners to criticise repressive regimes that would silence them if they could be identified.
“Restricting, or banning, anonymity is attempting to address one freedom of expression issue by creating another one,” Glitch, a UK charity fighting online abuse said in a statement in October, backed by 22 other campaign and human rights groups
Twitter told The House that pseudonyms were no shield from its rules or criminal liability, as new users were required to give a full name, date of birth, phone or email address when they open an account. In August, the company said that 99 per cent of the accounts it suspended permanently following comments during the Euros tournament were identifiable, so ID verification would have been unlikely to prevent the abuse.
The company said it was concerned that in its present form, the Online Safety bill risked setting a harmful international precedent due to a lack clarity, including over what speech is and is not allowed online and on enforcement penalties.
“We look forward to seeing more substantive definitions on key elements of the bill in the coming weeks and months. We will continue to collaborate with the government and industry to build on the work we’ve already undertaken to make the Internet a safe environment for all,’’ Katy Minshall, Head of UK Public Policy and Philanthropy at Twitter, said in a statement.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport did not respond to requests for comment on the online anonymity issue.
Meta did not respond to requests for comment. However, Nick Clegg, the company’s head of global affairs, told a Web summit in Lisbon earlier this month that the assertion that the company “algorithmically spoon-feeds hateful content” because that increases profits was wrong.
The Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill is due to report on 10 December.
Critics of the big tech firms, including Damian Collins, continue to believe they can go further. “We need platforms to be proactive, not reactive, in a way that respects free speech” Collins said.
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