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  • Writer's pictureStephen Kinsella

Recent Westminster parliamentary discussion of online harms, anonymity, abuse and misinformation

Since the government set out its plans for an “Online Safety Bill” on 15 Dec 2020, there have been few formal developments. However there is clearly work going on behind the scenes within Whitehall. For example, following the confirmation that Ofcom is to become the new regulator, several new Online Harms-related job vacancies have appeared on their website. Ministers have stated that the legislation is currently being drafted, that it will be tabled by the end of this year, and that we can expect pre-legislative scrutiny sometime before that.

Parliamentarians are also preparing for the legislation being tabled. Several All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), including the APPG for Compassion in Politics chaired by Debbie Abrahams MP, and the APPG for Digital Regulation and Responsibility chaired by Jeremy Wright MP, have started to engage in the detail of the government’s proposals. Their work should be complementary to that of the DCMS Select Committee and Home Affairs Select Committee, which are also expected to play a role in pre-legislative scrutiny.

The question of how to address misuse of anonymity features increasingly prominently in the work of these various cross-party groups of MPs. There appears to be a growing concern amongst parliamentarians that the effectiveness of other measures within the government’s online safety plans could be significantly weakened, without action to tackle the ways anonymity can enable abuse and disinformation. MPs are also concerned that public confidence in the legislation could be affected, given the continual highlighting of problems associated with anonymity by the press, celebrities, sportsplayers and ordinary constituents.

Opinion polling conducted this year by Compassion in Politics and Opinium confirmed the findings of earlier opinion polling (including our own from last year) of strong public support for action to tackle the harms associated with anonymity. The same polling also indicated strong support for our proposed solution of universally available, but optional verification. It found that 81% of UK social media users would be willing to go through a verification process if one were to be offered, and 72% would choose to mute unverified user-content from their feed if that option were available.

Maria Miller MP, a former Secretary of State at DCMS, and a former Equalities Minister, responded to the opinion polling by expressing strong support for action on anonymity. She set out her position in Conservative Home:

Anonymous accounts generate the majority of the abuse and misinformation spread online and while people should have an option to act incognito on social media, the harm these accounts cause must be addressed.
I support a twin-track system: giving social media users the opportunity to create a “verified” account by supplying a piece of personal identification and the ability to filter out “unverified” accounts. This would give choice to verified users while continuing to offer protection to those, for example whistle blowers, who want to access social media anonymously.

Siobhan Baillie, MP for Stroud (and my local MP), first highlighted the problem of anonymous abuse after having been on the receiving end of online abuse for taking a (very short) period of maternity leave last year following the birth of her daughter. She has since become a leading advocate for ensuring that misuse of anonymity is addressed within Online Harms legislation. She led a short Westminster Hall debate on the subject on 13th January, and then secured a longer backbench business debate in the House of Commons main chamber on 24 March. Introducing that debate, she explained:

What greater impediment to freedom of speech is there than people worrying that what they say online will end up in a death threat or a rape threat? What personal freedoms have been lost through the damage done to mental health by online bullying? How many people have already looked at online abuse and hesitated before applying for public-facing jobs, or not applied at all? My proposals would protect freedom of expression and respect the choice of anonymity, but make it harder for abusers to hide in darkness and give individuals new powers to control how they interact with others. I urge everybody to look up the organisation Clean up the Internet, which was co-founded by one of my constituents, to see the proposals in more detail.

One simple indication of the growing level of interest in this issue was the number of MPs seeking to participate. Over thirty MPs spoke in the debate, and apparently over one hundred had expressed a desire to speak had it not been for time constraints. These are high numbers for an unwhipped, backbench debate.

Here is a selection of some MPs’ contributions to the debate:

In the past, we argued that online anonymity supported open democratic debate; I am now convinced that anonymity encourages online harm that is not just hateful in itself but is used to spread lies about individuals and aims to undermine their credibility and so shut down their voices. Far from nurturing democratic debate, anonymity undermines democracy.

Dame Margaret Hodge MP

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.

Damian Hinds MP

Placing sensible checks on anonymity and incentivising against harm from anonymous accounts can help victims regain a sense of control and confidence, and would surely disrupt what are presently significant levels of abuse. I urge that restrictions be applied to online abusive actions, much more so than they currently are. Existing legislation urgently needs to be updated through the proposed online safety Bill.

Dr Lisa Cameron MP

These issues are too serious to be left to the chief execs of the big tech companies alone. Those people need to recognise the harm that their systems can create in the hands of people and organisations intent on spreading hate and abuse. We need to establish the standards that we expect them to meet, and empower the regulatory institutions we will need to ensure that they are doing so.

Damian Collins MP

It is not free speech when 50% of the conversation is living in fear of what someone might do, or of being found or being terrorised, and it is not free speech when we are not hearing those voices—that diversity of voices that improves our debates and discussions.

Stella Creasy MP

Human rights are often about a balance of rights. The right to anonymity in what someone says has to be balanced against the right of the people they abuse to speak freely themselves and the need to hold them to account for making their speech less free. These are of course difficult balances to strike, but if we care about everyone’s freedom of speech, we cannot avoid them

Jeremy Wright MP

We should mandate that social media platforms give people the option to verify their identity. Users should have the option to block interaction with others who choose not to verify themselves, and it should be clear to everyone who is verified. Doing that would put the power back into the hands of users who want to enjoy the amazing benefits of social media but not see hate speech or fake news.

Simon Fell MP

Imagine that we lived in a society where people walked around wearing a face mask to hide their identity with the sole intention of bullying people and causing upset without any consequences. That would be unacceptable—in fact, nearly impossible, as the police could be called and the culprits dealt with. Yet we have an online society that allows that to happen.

Lee Anderson MP

From stalking to harassment, grooming, scamming, extremism, fake news and political interference, we know that the anonymity of online interaction is doing harm, and there is therefore much merit in the proposals put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud.

Clare Coutinho MP

The conversation about anonymity is difficult and we may have to make trade-offs in what the Bill contains. We may not like some of the trade-offs, but at the end of the day, it would be much more worrying if the online safety Bill did not get to the heart of the issue. I sincerely hope that it will.

Jamie Stone MP

When we see data from Amnesty International on the number of women affected, it does even more to build the case that we need to tackle anonymity. We need to make sure people are held accountable for what they do online, and we need to make sure that the absolutely shocking stories we have heard today cannot be repeated. The Government are doing a lot in the online harms Bill, and this would be a worthy addition.

Laura Trott MP

Many Members have outlined some of the reasons why people may choose and need to act anonymously, but the internet is essentially a large public space with an antisocial behaviour problem. We design and shape our physical environment to promote safety. If the companies have failed to do that, the Government should step in.

Claire Hanna MP

I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism, and we have seen that anonymity also has an impact on online hate speech. In October 2020, nearly 40% of reported antisemitic abuse online during that month came from fully anonymous or partially anonymous users

Catherine McKinnell MP

Anonymous online abuse is dreadful to experience. I do not suppose there is one among us here today who has not experienced it in one form or the other. It is not, of course, the preserve of politicians, the high profile or celebrities: it creeps into every crack in society, as keyboard warriors hide behind unidentifiable usernames.

Virginia Crosbie MP

In the real world we have hate crime laws and defamation laws, but for the anonymous trolls the online space has become a free-for-all.

Naz Shah MP

Internet companies need to hold online trolls to account for their words and the damage those words cause. It is cowardly to hide behind a screen and the anonymity that social media profiles create.

Sara Britcliffe MP

Anonymity is not the only issue that must be tackled. We 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; it makes the task more necessary and urgent.

Charlotte Nichols MP

Social media companies can absolutely do more to make the online environment safer. They have the tools at their disposal, so do this Government. If the tech giants will not take action on it, it is up to the Government to give the regulators the resources and teeth they need to take appropriate actions

Taiwo Owatemi MP

I doubt any of us in this place have not been subject to online abuse from some anonymous source. We have to stand up and call it out. We have to recognise the scale of the problem that society is facing and the threat it poses to all of us, specifically to our young people

Christine Jardine MP

I believe that verification is the best way to protect people online. That does not mean that people—especially those who are vulnerable—should not be able to use a nom de plume, but social media users should have the option to prove their identity.

John Nicolson MP

While there are legitimate reasons for people to use a pseudonym online, it is clear that those accounts should be limited in what they do, and that other users should be able to limit their interaction with them. This could be done by the platforms now; it could have been done years ago.

Jo Stevens MP

Rob Roberts MP observed in his speech that a desire for legislative action to tackle abuse of anonymity is “seemingly unifying the entire House”. This assessment was not put to the test of a vote, but it does seem clear that a desire to see the Online Safety Bill strengthened to address anonymity enjoys strong cross party support. Labour MPs (including the shadow Secretary of State), Conservative MPs (including several former Secretaries of State), SNP MPs (including their front bench spokesperson), and DUP, SDLP, and Lib Dem MPs all expressed a high level of agreement with each other. Strikingly, most advocated the nuanced approach that we have promoted; requiring anonymity to be managed as a “risk factor”, rather than a simplistic ban on all its uses.

The government’s official position has not yet formally changed since declaring in the 15 Dec 2020 Full Response that the legislation will “not put any new limits on online anonymity”. However, there has possibly, in the face of all this pressure from MPs, been a change of tone.

DCMS Minister Caroline Dinenage, responding to the Westminster Hall Debate in January, stated that “I am not taking anything off the table. I want genuinely to put this legislation through pre-legislative scrutiny, take the comments of both Houses and ensure that, when we move forward, we do so in the best possible way. That is why we will continue to keep the area of anonymity under review as we progress with the online safety legislation.”

DCMS Minister Matt Warman, responding to March’s backbench debate in the Commons, acknowledged that “certain functionalities, such as the ability to share content or contact users anonymously, are more likely to give rise to harm.” and offered various conciliatory phrases about “continuing to listen to concerns” and being keen for parliamentarians to “continue to feed in”.

We will continue to make the case for the scope of the Online Safety Bill to explicitly include within its scope risk factors on social media such as anonymity, and for a balanced approach which seeks to restrict misuse of anonymity to do harm whilst safeguarding its legitimate uses. We’re pleased that an ever-growing number of parliamentarians seem keen to work with us towards this objective.

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