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  • Writer's pictureStephen Kinsella

Clean Up The Internet welcomes Petitions Committee recommendation to tackle anonymous abuse

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

The House Of Common Petitions Committee today released a timely report into “Tackling Online Abuse”, which sets out the conclusions of its inquiry into this issue.

The decision of the Petitions Committee to hold this inquiry was in itself significant, given the special nature of its remit. The primary purpose of this Committee is to consider e-petitions submitted on Parliament’s petitions website. It is rare for it then to conduct an inquiry and produce a report. It chose to do so on the issue of Online Abuse because of the multiple, extremely large, petitions on the Parliament website. As the report explains, “the popularity of e-petitions we have received in recent years on this issue demonstrates how strongly people believe that something needs to be done.”

Since launching Clean Up The Internet we have sometimes heard it suggested, by opponents of government action, that online abuse is an “elite” concern, raised by those in the public eye, be they celebrities or politicians, rather than by ordinary social media users. There’s plenty of research indicating that this is not the case, and that online abuse (and indeed other drawbacks of social media such as disinformation) are widely experienced. It is welcome that the Parliamentary committee most directly tasked with engaging with and responding to public opinion has also recognised that concern about online abuse is extremely widespread.

The Committee’s interest in understanding and responding to public opinion was reflected in the way they conducted the inquiry, with prominence given to petition starters and others with very direct experience of online abuse. And in a welcome expansion of the consultation process, they also provided opportunities for school children to feed in their thoughts. Clean Up The Internet was delighted to also be invited to provide oral evidence, at a session last November, alongside other organisations with expertise in questions of digital regulation and rights.

The question of the role played by anonymity in fuelling online abuse loomed large in the committee’s deliberations. This was thanks in part to the petition started by Katie Price on the subject which had gathered over 700,000 signatures, but also because it was raised by several other witnesses with lived experience of online abuse, including TOWIE star Bobby Norris, who started a petition regarding online homophobia. Unsurprising, anonymity and verification also surfaced in the discussions held with school children.

The Committee continued the welcome trend within Parliament of avoiding a reductive “ban anonymity” vs “save anonymity” discussion, instead carefully exploring the ways in which anonymity can enable harmful behaviour, but can also in some circumstances be positive. There is an emerging consensus amongst legislators in favour of a more nuanced approach to treating anonymity as a risk factor, which was reflected in the Committee’s key recommendation on this issue:

109. We recommend that the Government set an expectation that the largest social media platforms should offer users the option to filter content by user verification status and block content from users who have chosen not to verify their account. User verification should not necessarily have to be in the form of an ID document, and we recommend that Ofcom should conduct research to establish possible methods of account verification that offer a robust way to reduce users’ exposure to harmful content while also being maximally inclusive and accessible.

This is precisely what we have been suggesting, and also very much along the lines of the Social Media Platforms (Identity Verification) Ten Minute Rule Bill proposed by Siobhan Baillie MP, which has gathered cross-party support. The focus on requiring platforms to act to reduce risks of harm through changes to their design and systems is also very much in line with the central recommendations of the Joint Committee, whose report we discuss in detail elsewhere.

We welcome the report, and congratulate the Committee on a timely intervention. The government minister, Chris Philp, signalled in his own evidence to the committee that he was “thinking very carefully” about our proposals to give users a right to verify and a right to block interaction from unverified accounts. We hope that his careful thought is followed by effective action, along the lines which the Petitions Committee is suggesting.

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