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The Online Safety Bill: new laws to reduce anonymous online abuse

Posted on 29 March 2022

The Online Safety Bill has proposed new laws to reduce the prevalence of anonymous online abuse. 

Online anonymity plays an important role in our open and democratic discourse. It allows marginalised groups, including victims of violence and whistleblowers to speak out and share their experiences, without fear of recrimination, and facilitates investigative journalism. 

However, it is widely accepted that online anonymity can also encourage online harms. It can provide a cover for those who propagate online abuse, harassment, trolling and disinformation, and also embolden users to post abusive content they would not share in person. This "dis-inhibition effect" leads to a lack of restraint online and anonymity can prevent users feeling accountable for their abusive behaviour. Fostered by the characteristics and norms of the internet, anonymous online abusers now have unlimited reach and an ability to target anyone. The marginalised groups who benefit from online anonymity have also in some instances become the targets of the hate it facilitates.

Civil remedies to unmask anonymous abusers can often be expensive and of limited practical use. The Courts in England and Wales can grant third party disclosure orders, which require social media platforms to disclose any identifying information relating to an account including names, addresses, ISP addresses, billing information and location data. To be effective, the orders must be sought quickly and can prove expensive to obtain and difficult to enforce if the online platform is based outside of this jurisdiction. Conversely, privacy tools to obscure and disguise a person's identity online are inexpensive and easy to put in place. This can result in a costly and sometimes futile strategy, beyond the reasonable means of the ordinary person. With anonymous online offenders having little to no fear of recrimination from either the platforms or law enforcement, the misuse of online anonymity is therefore a very real issue needing legal reform.

The Online Safety Bill

The draft of the Bill, published for pre-legislative scrutiny in May 2021, was silent on the issue of anonymity. However, Siobhan Baillie MP has led a parliamentary campaign for a provision to be added to the Bill to require social media platforms to offer a user identity verification process to all users, and to require such platforms to offer options to limit or block interaction with other users who have chosen not to verify their identity through that process.

The Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill endorsed this approach and recommended that Ofcom be required to include proportionate steps to mitigate the risk of anonymous abuse online. In February 2022, Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries confirmed that the revised draft of the Bill would include new measures to fight anonymous online abusers.  

On 17 March 2022, following the period of extensive pre-legislative scrutiny, the Government introduced the Bill to Parliament. The Bill will require "Category One" services, i.e., the largest social media platforms such as Meta and Twitter, to offer all adult users of the service the option to verify their identity, and imposes on them a duty to provide features that adults may use to filter out non-verified users. It will be for Ofcom to decide how platforms will meet this criteria, but the Bill expressly states that the verification process can be of any kind and need not require documentation. The Bill also requires Category One platforms to include proportionate features which adult users may use if they wish to increase their control over the legal but harmful content that they see.

The Government argues these duties, in combination with the duty to (i) remove priority illegal content such as harassment or threats to kill; and (ii) provide features that reduce the likelihood of a user encountering other content that is harmful to adults, will protect users against anonymous online abuse. 

The new duties included in the Bill could require Twitter, for example, to provide an option for users to only receive direct messages and replies from verified accounts. This could create two distinct communities on the platform and it will be interesting to see whether interactions in the "verified" sphere see a reduction in online harm and abuse compared to "unverified" interactions. There is also a real risk that these changes create echo chambers on social media that strengthen the bias towards misinformation and give rise to an unintended consequence of creating further division in public discourse.

This will be a delicate balancing exercise between protecting users from anonymous online abuse and safeguarding freedom of expression, particularly in the context of whistleblower accounts that rely on anonymity to speak out against oppressive regimes or corporate and social wrongs. Some users may refuse to verify on a point of principle and be excluded from social discourse. 

There is a balance to be struck between reducing online anonymous hate and protecting the freedom and reach that social media offers anonymous accounts acting for the democratic good. The Online Safety Bill will spark debate as to how best this can be achieved.

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