The right to online anonymity must be protected

There are plenty of lessons to be learnt from the horrific killing of David Amess. People are right to call for a less divisive tone to political debate; Brendan Cox’s article was particularly moving in its calls for more civility and understanding between opposing political sides. Part of this may well be more enforcement against online abuse, and perhaps pressuring social media companies to act faster when it comes to people using those platforms to threaten others. These things will be debated in time and rightly so.

Emotions are running high and there is an understandable desire to create a legislative legacy for Mr Amess. Jo Cox’s death prompted the creation of organisations such as More in Common, which works towards creating more united societies. Close friends of Amess seem keen to stress his focus on ending online abuse, and are rightly raising this as an issue that should be amplified in the light of his death.

But we must tread very carefully in the next few weeks.

There are calls for the government to legislate to end online anonymity, and without voices speaking up against this, there is always a danger that these ideas could become more entrenched and so tightly bound up with Mr Amess’ legacy that they become very difficult to oppose. I’ve little doubt that those calling for new rules have good intentions, and clearly a mandate to reveal your identity when posting anything online would make it easier to track down abusers. But it would be a hugely dangerous road to go down to force social media companies, who already hold huge amounts of data on all of us, to gather even more.

I have friends who live in authoritarian regimes who self-censor everything they put online through a fear of being seen as anti-government. Without the possibility for anonymity, these regimes would have even more tools to suppress dissent. Consider also refugees, many of whom use social media apps to contact people back home. Not only would giving extra layers of personal information to social media companies potentially put them and their loved ones in danger, but it would also deter people from creating an account, making it much more difficult to get crucial information across.

These are just two examples; there are plenty of other scenarios in which the banning of anonymity could cause unintentional problems.

Laws must not be made based on emotional responses to events, no matter how valid and strong those emotional feelings might be. We must take the time and care needed; there must be objectivity applied.

I am sure that the friends and family of Mr Amess will create a positive, lasting legacy for him in the political sphere, just as Jo Cox’s loved ones have done. It is important, though, to ensure that bad law, however well-intentioned, is not created in his name.

 

 

* David Gray is a musician, actor and writer based in Birmingham. He is a a co-director of Keep Streets Live

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15 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Oct '21 - 12:50pm

    A responsible and thoughtful article.

    I think instead, would not, a fitting legacy be to improve security for mps? They ought to have venues in constituencies with metal detectors or ask people to turn out their pockets. It works at the Commons, in museums in central London, and many areas.

    If people need the village hall, then see those few on the internet or speak on the phone.

    The victims of stabbings are not always the same as the victims of trolls. One does not correlate to the other.

    That said, we can do more about the internet. But we must consider the comments and consideration of pieces like this here.

  • I’m not sure that the main arguments in this article hold water. In the first place, ending social anonymity shouldn’t mean that your full identity is publicly visible with everything you post: With a decent implementation of any law, it’d still be possible to post stuff under pseudonyms, for example. But, behind the scenes, the social media company should be securely and privately storing your details, which would only be made available to law enforcement in the event that you post abuse/harassment/libel/etc.

    The argument about authoritarian regimes sounds compelling but isn’t really relevant because those regimes are likely to/will already be implementing their own restrictions, completely independently of what the UK does. Look at China, for example, which already has huge and awful restrictions on online free speech: Does anyone seriously think that the UK implementing its own anonymity laws will have any significant impact on how China controls the Internet within its borders? Of course it won’t!

    There are certainly practical problems involved in ending online anonymity – most obviously, the need to protect whistle-blowers etc., and the huge issue of how you deal with posts that originate abroad and are visible in the UK. Those problems will require careful thought to work out how to solve them, but I don’t think that’s an argument for doing nothing. ISTM the problem of people abusing anonymity to post awful stuff that makes the online world less safe and more threatening for so many other people is so great that tackling it has to be a priority.

  • It’s unfortunate that authoritarians in Government always instinctively seek to exploit situations like this to promote positions they have long held. The investigation is ongoing, but is there any evidence to suggest that ending online anonymity or banning end-to-end encryption would have prevented David Amess’ tragic death? Physical attacks on politicians didn’t start when social media was invented.

  • John Marriott 21st Oct '21 - 7:50pm

    @David Gray
    No. You should not make any comments and hide behind a pseudonym. Are you listening ‘Jeff’, ‘Marco’,‘Nonconformistradical’, ‘Martin’, ‘Glenn’, ‘Fiona’, “Matt’ etc……..? What are you afraid of?

    PS ‘White Ladder’ is one of my favourite albums.

  • Antony Watts 22nd Oct '21 - 11:59am

    I am absolutely against on-line anonymity. We should have a register of on-line names versus real life names and addresses and email. It should be needed to register before you can join and social network. This data base would be private and useful only to police (not Home Office etc) for suspicious on-line content investigations.

  • William Wallace 22nd Oct '21 - 12:02pm

    I agree with John Marriott. The UK is not (yet, at least) an authoritarian society. A website like LibDem Voice should at least strongly recommend that all contributors speak openly, and tell us who they are – with exceptions permitted by the editors for officials or others in sensitive positions.

  • I totally agree with William Wallace about LDV. What need could anyone possibly have to comment on LDV anonymously?

    As regards the arguments concerning authoritarian regimes and whistleblowers etc, how about the following as a way forward: you should be able to post content online anonymously for a legitimate purpose (such as legitimate freedom of speech which you are denied in your jurisdiction), but if what you post contains abuse (I know this would have to be defined, and the devil would be in the detail), then you lose your right to anonymity.

  • Phil Wainewright 22nd Oct '21 - 12:27pm

    So William Wallace and John Marriott you want people who work in politically restricted posts or whose relatives live in oppressive regimes jump through extra hoops to be able to post on LibDemVoice? It’s already a requirement to share an email address to comment, which means commenters are accountable if they break rules, whether or not they choose to use a pseudonym. That should be sufficient.

    There is a separate argument whether people should be obliged to verify their identity to be able to participate in social media/forums. At the moment you can just show up with an unverified email address or mobile phone number. I don’t believe we should be arguing for government-run schemes or mandates – and it should be up to each social network whether they want to require verification – but it might be good to have some kind of scheme that links verfiication to a bank account (as banks are already required to verify your identity).

  • Phil Wainewright 22nd Oct '21 - 12:31pm

    PS: LDV allows you to verify your identity here by linking it to your LibDem membership – and you get a charming orange nametag to prove it – I recommend it!

  • Peter Chambers 22nd Oct '21 - 1:45pm

    Do bots have rights?

    Do sock-puppet accounts created by political operators have rights?

    We can argue for the right to anonymous political speech because we are humans with rights. To what extent should platforms verify that new accounts are the responsibility of a Real Human, and not a script on an ad-agency computer?

  • John Marriott 22nd Oct '21 - 4:04pm

    @Phil Wainewright
    I am writing exclusively about people operating in THIS country. The last time I checked we were still a relatively functioning democracy of sorts. We might have an incompetent regime but hardly an ‘oppressive’ one!

  • John Marriott – I think what you’re saying taps into a big concern I’ve had, amplified in the last couple of years.

    You say that we ‘should not’ post anonymously. For the most part, I actually agree. LDV, for example, rightly encourages people to post using their real names, and offers a voluntary verification option. I think this is a very good idea. But there is a huge leap between things we ‘should not’ do, and making something illegal. Throughout the Covid crisis, I have been concerned at the number of liberals advocating authoritarian measures to criminalise activity we ‘should not’ be doing (I’ll say here that I felt lockdown was a tragic necessity, though I have serious concerns about some aspects of the coronavirus law).

    What would this entail? Most social media sites already require a signup using email/phone number etc. So verification would involve uploading a picture, perhaps, or an identifying document such as a passport or driving licence. And where do you draw the line at what you’d need this for? Facebook, Twitter etc would obviously be in the firing line, but what about comments sections in a BTL section of the Guardian for example, or Lib Dem Voice? ANY platform in which you are posting something online has the potential to include abuse. So you’d end up having to create some sort of digital ID that you could use on every website. That is a very concerning road to go down.

    The point about authoritarian governments, I think, still holds. If a foreign regime knows that every website from Facebook to the Watford Observer holds ID documents on anyone who has ever posted on them, they could quite feasibly demand access to these or block them completely. It also gives these authoritarian regimes much more of a cover to pass similar laws and use them for nefarious purposes. I think we do in fact live under an oppressive regime in Britain right now – look at the attacks on the BBC; the legal system; asylum seekers; the relentless corporatisation and privatisation of public spaces.

    Most people advocating a legally binding end to online anonymity are not authoritarians. But authoritarians will be rubbing their hands with glee at having much more moderate, reasonable people opening up new avenues for them.

  • John Barrett 23rd Oct '21 - 6:15pm

    I am in favour of ending online anonymity for the simple reason that it enables anyone, or any group, to post anything that is either: not true, a deliberate lie, hateful, a threat or much worse, without that person or organisation having any responsibility for what they have said or posted.

    It is also possible for the same people or organisations to have multiple identities and accounts, and to distort and influence a wide range of issues, policies and more, with no way of establishing the real level of concern about, or support for, any issue.

    The companies which facilitate the postings, such as Facebook, will no doubt be able to easily identify the individuals involved, and one possible the way forward is to compel those companies to have the same responsibility for what is published on their sites in the same way as broadcasters and other print publishers have to be responsible for what they print or broadcast.

  • John Marriott et al

    You might want to reflect on the fact that people with dissenting/unpopular views on the issues of the day feel that they need more anonymity than those who follow the herd do.

    Im quite offended by some of the comments on anonymity. I think I have done enough posting on this site for the time being and will take a break but I wish everybody well.

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