Anonymity on the Internet

Anonymous Internet User – Source: Clint Patterson on Unsplash

The role of anonymity in fuelling abuse of public figures has recently received significant attention in the media. Both footballers and politicians, having been subjected to horrendous levels of anonymous abuse and harassment on social media, have proposed that anonymity be banned, with all users required to verify their identity.

Clean up the Internet (CUTI) is an independent, UK-based organisation concerned about the degradation in online discourse and its implications for democracy. It campaigns for evidence-based action to increase civility and respect online, to safeguard freedom of expression, and to reduce online bullying, trolling, intimidation, and misinformation.

CUTI does not advocate an outright ban on anonymity on the Internet for two reasons. Firstly, there can be circumstances where anonymity is important for freedom of expression. Secondly, there are measures short of a total ban which have the potential to be highly effective.
Their research suggests that harm caused by abuse and disinformation from anonymous accounts could be significantly reduced if platforms made three important changes:

  1. Give all social media users the option to verify their identity. 
    Every social media user should be given the option of a robust, secure means of verifying that the identity they are using on social media is authentic. Users who wish to continue unverified should be free to continue to do so.
  2. Make it easy for everyone to see whether or not a user is verified. 
    The verification status of an individual user should be clearly visible to all other users. Each user would then be able to bring their own judgement as to what a verification status might say about the credibility and reliability of another user’s content.
  3. Give users the option to block interaction with unverified users. 
    Some users will be happy to hear from, and interact with, unverified users. Others will not. This should be a matter of individual user choice. Every verified social media user should be offered options to manage their level of interaction with unverified users, including an option to block communication, comments and other interaction from unverified users, in bulk rather than at present where they are expected first to receive abuse and then block individually.

CUTI has  recently produced a briefing exploring how making identity verification available as an option for all social media users could work in practice.

 They have also made two submissions to parliamentary inquiries, explaining how their proposals would have a net positive impact on freedom of expression. A summary of that thinking, together with links to the full submissions, is available here.

Whilst these proposals regarding anonymity could be implemented voluntarily by the platforms, in practice it seems likely that regulation will be required. In December 2020, the Westminster government issued the Consultation Outcome on the “Online Harms White Paper” which finally confirmed its plans for an “Online Safety Bill”. This Bill would finally spell the end of “self-regulation”, with the regulation of social media platforms added to the remit of the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom.
Whilst we are still awaiting a lot of the details, there’s much to welcome in the government’s plan. An end to laissez-faire is long overdue. However, it is likely that the plans will need improving if Ofcom is to be given the teeth to require platforms to tackle risk factors such anonymity. CUTI is in dialogue with parliamentarians of all the main parties, about how the legislation may need to be strengthened.
I wrote an initial reaction to the government’s proposals on the day they were published. CUTI has since developed some further analysis of the strengths and weakness of the proposals as they stand, on which we would welcome feedback.

Anonymity on the Internet must be regulated, but that regulation must be workable and effective. The proposals from CUTI are both. Let us protect the vulnerable on the Internet with some robust legislation.

Ed: Stephen Kinsella OBE is founder of Clean Up the Internet and lives in Stroud.

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