Last Friday, the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport made a very welcome announcement regarding plans to include new measures in their revised Online Safety Bill, to “protect people from anonymous trolls”.
The announcement includes:
Ruling out any kind of "ban" on anonymity, with an explicit recognition that doing so would "negatively affect those who have positive online experiences or use it for their personal safety such as domestic abuse victims, activists living in authoritarian countries or young people exploring their sexuality"
Requiring the largest platforms (“category 1 platforms”) to offer their users an option to choose to verify their identity under a new "user verification duty".
Requiring the same platforms to offer their users more options to “control who can interact with them”, including blocking anonymous trolls
Requiring Ofcom to produce guidance setting out "the verification options companies could use", including requirements to "ensure that the possible verification measures are accessible to vulnerable users".
Requiring Ofcom to "consult with the Information Commissioner, as well as vulnerable adult users and technical experts", when drafting the guidance.
The Secretary of State, Nadine Dorries, was quoted as saying “we have listened to calls for us to strengthen our new online safety laws”. And it does indeed appear that the government has listened, adopting an approach very similar to that which we have been calling for, along with a growing number of other organisations, parliamentarians, and parliamentary committees.
We do need to wait for the detail as it emerges in the Bill, but on the basis of the announcement can make a number of comments. First: introducing these extra measures into the Online Safety Bill is not, and doesn’t present itself as, a magic bullet. But it will strengthen the Bill significantly by putting some social obligations on platforms regarding how they manage a risky design feature. The platforms’ current laissez-faire approach to anonymity, designed to maximise their ad revenue and minimise their overheads, has enabled widespread misuse of anonymity, to abuse other users and to amplify misinformation.
Giving users a “right to verify”, and more control over who can interact with them, strikes a better balance between different users' rights and freedoms. Under these latest proposals, no one would be forced to verify their identity, but equally no one would be forced to interact with anonymous accounts (given the higher level of risk of abuse etc) if they don't want to.
It is notable that a range of other informed commentators and experts have welcomed the announcement. The Football Association, for example, described it as “a helpful first step to put the onus and responsibility on social media companies to create a safe space for all their users, and to give people the option to control who they interact with and what they see online.” Damian Collins MP, chair of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, said that "the Government has found the right balance between protection and freedom of speech by focusing on user choice".
We expect this announcement to also prove popular with the UK general public. Numerous opinion polls have indicated that the UK public recognises this problem, supports a change of approach, and would by a large majority be willing to verify their identity. The strength of public feeling has also been reflected in several very large petitions on the parliament website, and many parliamentarians have highlighted the number of their constituents affected by abuse by anonymous accounts.