openDemocracyUK: News

We can’t put internet anonymity in the box marked ‘too hard to solve’

Forthcoming internet legislation ignores anonymity, but this fudge benefits only the social media platforms

David Babbs
1 April 2021, 12.00am
A petition launched by Katie Price calls for mandatory ID verification to open a social media account
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Craig Stennett / Alamy Stock Photo

Twitter turned 15 last week.

In a parliamentary debate on online abuse last Wednesday, Labour MP Stella Creasy, an early adopter of Twitter, remembered her first online death threat, in 2013. “Back then,” she said, “it felt shocking... now it is all too commonplace.”

The debate was triggered by an online petition started by celebrity Katie Price, which called for mandatory ID verification when opening a social media account – to allow authorities to ‘track a troll’. The petition passed 100,000 signatures within hours.

Labour MP Catherine McKinnell, the chair of the House of Commons Petition Committee, noted there have been many such petitions, pointing to “a growing public concern that anonymity enables people to get away with, and worse encourages, horrendous abuse”.

Price gets a barrage of social media abuse, much of it directed at her son, and much of it mocking his disability.

And hardly a week goes by without a Black footballer being targeted online. When Manchester United midfielder Fred made an error that led to a goal for Leicester City on 21 March, there was a grim inevitability to the racist abuse on his social media feeds shortly afterwards.

Three days later, Rangers’ captain James Tavernier told the Daily Record that every single Black player at the Glasgow club has suffered online racist abuse this season.

Many of the MPs speaking in the parliamentary debate on 24 March – particularly the women – had their own stories of racist or misogynist abuse.

Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie, who led the debate, described her experience of being targeted on social media after taking maternity leave. Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking, read out some of the anti-semitic abuse that has been directed at her.

Many MPs acknowledged that the problem wasn’t just for those in public life. As Labour’s Naz Shah observed, “We have the privilege of sharing our experiences in places such as Parliament, yet we still face this abuse, which is without any consequences. What hope do my constituents have?”.

This isn’t the first time MPs have debated online anonymity, but such backbench debates aren’t formally part of a legislative process.

But the sheer number and variety of MPs wanting to speak was unusual – as was the emerging cross-party consensus. Every MP who spoke talked about the ways that anonymity fuels and enables toxic online behaviour, but almost no one said they wanted to ban it.

Former Conservative cabinet minister Damian Hinds summed up the challenge: “while in one context anonymity can give voice to the voiceless and empower the oppressed, in another it can coarsen public discourse and facilitate abuse. Surely it is possible for us to have the one without having to have the other?”

Labour’s Charlotte Nichols echoed the “need to finely balance the many, varied and legitimate needs for anonymity with the need to address harms perpetrated by anonymous accounts. But the fact that it is difficult and complicated is not a reason not to tackle it”.

As Welsh Tory MP Rob Roberts observed, the issue had the unusual effect of “seemingly unifying the entire House” around a nuanced position.

This was a welcome change from the long and sterile debate over either ‘banning’ or ‘saving’ anonymity.

The polarised ‘ban anonymity’ vs ‘save anonymity’ debate has suited the Big Tech companies

Calls to ban anonymity are understandable, particularly for those with the most experience of its harmful effects – but they underestimate the importance of legitimate uses of anonymity, such as whistleblowing.

On the other hand, those campaigning to ‘save anonymity’ tend to skirt the clear evidence of the ways anonymity can fuel harm.

Paul Bernal, a lecturer in information technology, intellectual property and media law at the University of East Anglia, is an eloquent defender of unrestricted online anonymity. But his claim that “when forced to use their real names internet trolls actually become more rather than less aggressive” just doesn't stack up. Though one 2016 study of comments left on a German petition platform did make this finding, most studies of social media interactions find the opposite.

And whilst anonymity can be a tool enabling some vulnerable people to stay online, many other vulnerable people are on the receiving end of anonymity as a tool used to threaten, abuse, and silence them. Anti-islamophobia group TellMama has noted how anonymity can both enable islamophobic abuse, and make that abuse more frightening because it is harder to quantify the threat.

Ultimately, the polarised ‘ban it’ vs ‘save it’ debate has suited the Big Tech companies, because it impedes the search for proportionate solutions. For Big Tech platforms, online conflict, abuse and disinformation are all just forms of engagement that can be monetised. Fake, anonymous, or abusive users are just extra users to sell to advertisers.

Parliamentarians are starting to recognise that there are practical solutions to the misuse of anonymity, which don’t involve bans or a denial of the complexities and the trade-offs. I floated one such potential approach, involving forcing social media platforms to make identity verification universally available but optional, on openDemocracy last year. Since then the Community Security Trust, which campaigns against anti-semitism, has put forward similar, complementary proposals to “incentivise against harm from anonymous accounts”.

Forthcoming legislation

As the government prepares to steer its long-awaited Online Safety Bill through parliament, currently it does not include any new measures to address the problems with anonymity. On the evidence of the strength of feeling in the Commons last week, there might be enough cross-party support to force their hand. Matt Warman, the government minister tasked with setting out their position at the end of the debate, peppered his speech with non-committal but conciliatory phrases: “could bring benefits", “will be exploring".

With Twitter now 15 years old, and Facebook 17, the era of laissez-faire ‘self-regulation’ for Big Tech platforms is long past its sell-by date. The Online Safety Bill has the potential to finally introduce some democratic oversight over how these unaccountable corporations run our online public spaces. Inserting proportionate measures to restrict the abuse of anonymity, and safeguard its legitimate uses, would address a glaring hole in the government’s current plans. The events of the last week suggest that – despite the lobbying efforts of the Big Tech companies, and general deregulatory instincts of the current government – there’s room for some optimism that we can toughen the bill up a bit as it passes through Parliament later this year.

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