#SaveAnonymity: Together we can defend anonymity

In recent days, a petition has circulated online which calls for a legal requirement to provide a verified form of ID in order to open a social media account. In response, many social media users have begun a counter-campaign, #SaveAnonymity, sharing their stories of why they rely on online anonymity to safeguard their privacy and right to freedom of expression.

Open Rights Group stands with the #SaveAnonymity campaigners. We know that mandatory identity verification could threaten some in the LGBTQ community among others. And we know that all of you, regardless of who you are, want us to help you stand up for your rights.

In that light, we want to take some time to explain where anonymity currently stands in the political context, what we can do to safeguard it, and what you can do to help.

First off, is the petition going to become a law?

The petition, which has reached the public signature threshold, requires the subject to be debated in Parliament. That is all it requires. It does not require the proposal to become a law, or to be introduced into any potential law.

Parliament is far from unaware of the issue of online anonymity. Indeed, it’s already been debated in Parliament many times in recent years, most recently in January, and in 2019, and in 2018, in addition to being raised in various discussions on the Online Safety Bill. But more on that in a moment.

What’s our position on anonymity?

Most “anonymous” content is not truly anonymous, but provisionally so. In nearly all cases, the individual can be identified via other details held by a platform, or in combination with details from an ISP. True anonymity is hard to obtain, but is vital for whistleblowers and press freedom.

Likewise, anonymity is vital for individuals seeking to manage different public identities. That makes it especially important for people in minority groups, such as parts of the LGBTQ community, who may need to feel safe at home.

So we know that anonymity, on its own, is not the issue. Indeed, anonymity is vital to ensure the safety of those experiencing abuse, exclusion, or any number of situations beyond their control. It is also a vital safeguard on freedom of expression.

What is being discussed?

The upcoming Online Safety Bill, which grew out of the Online Harms framework, will require platforms to tackle various forms of content online. This includes content which is already illegal, such as terrorism and child abuse, but will also include content which is also considered “legal but harmful.” 

While this proposal aspires to tackle online bullying and harassment, it does so in a way that will force all service providers – not just social media sites – to make value judgements of what content is and is not harmful, abusive, or offensive. This is highly likely to result in two consequences. The first will be a chilling effect on free speech, where people self-censor themselves rather than risk having their content – which may be perfectly legal and harmless – taken down. The second is collateral censorship, where sites feel they have no choice but to take down content which may be perfectly legal and harmless, rather than face stiff punishments and fines for failing to manage content which fell into a subjective grey area.

In tandem with those risks to the freedom of expression of what we can say online, the Bill will require online service providers to meet the standards of a “duty of care.” This is a largely subjective concept, borrowed from health and safety, which could hold site administrators responsible for, well, pretty much anything bad that happens on their services. Parts of the discussion around the “duty of care” have called for mandatory identity verification, and it’s likely that this is where any demands for it may land in politics and in law. Requiring identity verification to be able to use a site – not necessarily to post anything on it, but merely to access it – will restrict what we can do online.

Will any of this make the web sites and services we use safer and better places to be? Far from it. Let’s cover just a few of the unintended consequences which could occur if the Online Safety Bill requires mandatory identity verification in addition to imposing subjective content moderation obligations.

Who are you, anyway?

Calls for identity verification tend to concern the opening of new accounts. What about existing accounts? Would users be given a deadline to prove their identities or lose their accounts? What would happen to accounts which did not or could not verify their ownership? Would they be suspended or deleted? What would happen to the content created by those accounts? None of these issues have been considered, despite their potential to take down substantial amounts of legal content overnight.

Criminals until proven innocent

Proposals around online safety are often focused entirely on social media sites, also known as the “tech giants.” It’s important to remember that these legislative proposals, including identity verification, would not just impact them. They would impact all sites, all services, and all forms of content – even the small and simple services which you might personally run. Big companies can easily afford the compliance costs of introducing mandatory identity verification. Small businesses, startups, open source projects, and aspiring competitor platforms, less so.

What’s more, mandating identity verification would force all site administrators to become the owners of privatised databases of personally identifiable internet usage, which must be collected on the assumption that all site users are guilty before proven innocent. Why should those costs and burdens be put onto them for the bad behaviour of others?

Throwing the poor under the bus

Demands for identity verification tend to propose linking access to formal documentation, such as a utility bill or a bank account. However, these requirements would immediately disenfranchise those on low incomes, the unbanked, the homeless, and people experiencing any number of other forms of social exclusion, from being able to access essential information and services. Without that, they can’t ever build their lives up to a level where it’s even possible to have utility bills and bank accounts. Policy solutions to misuses of online anonymity should not be a blueprint for the creation of a digital and social underclass.

These are just a few of the unintended consequences of mandatory identity verification. There’s another aspect to consider.

A duty to prove you are not a child

Any discussion on anonymity and online safety must also consider the impact of blanket age verification requirements which have been proposed across various laws and initiatives. Because age verification is linked to child protection, it’s often seen as the cuddlier face of the debate, but its ramifications are no less dangerous.

Demands for age verification linked to an existing form of identity, or through a process called “age assurance” which attempts to confirm identity through other means, have been frequently proposed for the Online Safety Bill as a means of meeting the “duty of care”. However, as with our earlier unintended consequences, mandatory age verification would impact all users, all sites, all services, and all content, not just social media sites, regardless of the user’s age or, indeed, the fact that they had no intention of doing wrong online. Instead of all of us having to constantly verify our identities, we would all have to constantly verify our age, in order to confirm that we are not children. It’s hard to see these ideas as anything other than identity verification by the back door.

Whether it’s identity or age verification, mandating these processes will create a chilling effect on free speech and expression, where young people as well as grown adults will be afraid to express what may be wholly innocuous and subjective opinions on matters both public and private, because their words can be linked directly to their real identities through processes created in order to – quite literally – treat them like children.

So what do we want to see happen?

Clearly, mandatory identity verification is not the answer, and indeed, it’s not the right question. For us, the question should be what forms of recourse exist for those who are adversely impacted by anonymity, and whether those forms of recourse are sufficient.

A number of policy and legal options already exist to give users, and law enforcement, a form of recourse when online content, whether attributed to a user or left anonymously, is misused as a vector for abuse, harassment, or criminality. These include the provisions of the Investigatory Powers Act as well as Norwich Pharmacal Orders. Options for recourse also include direct engagement between law enforcement and platforms which are used to send abusive messages; this engagement has successful resulted, for example, in the arrest and prosecution of a member of the public who sent online abuse to the individual who started the petition.

Regulatory and law enforcement models already exist to deal with the vast majority of criminal misuses of unattributed speech or online anonymity. The question is why they are not being used to their full extent, and consequently, what government and petitioners would hope to achieve with any new regulations which are not possible under current laws.

A better web beyond online anonymity

We have a few more ideas on how to make the web a better place to be which don’t involve curtailing your rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

We know that many people are rightly critical of the lack of good moderation, appeals, and content controls on major platforms, whether those issues are raised by anonymous trolls or the most powerful person on the planet. These aspects need to improve vastly. So we want the Bill to introduce basic user rights, and for platforms to develop independent regulation and oversight of their decisions. Independent means independent – from platforms, the state, and from Government – just like courts are.

We also think that social media diversity – in other words, lots more options and choice in social media offerings – can help people who are fed up with Twitter and Facebook’s arid and narrow approach to content controls. So we want competition law to make Twitter and Facebook open their systems for others to message and share content, just like you can use any email system or any phone company you like. This works: and it is happening already, for instance on the Mastodon social media and Matrix chat networks. They already deliver better content and safety policies that users want. But most of us are trapped into using the big platforms, because that’s where our networks are. If we could choose to use a different platform to interact with Twitter or Facebook’s users, then we could choose the kind of experience we want, and that would drive better content and moderation policies.

Social media diversity would allow users to be on platforms where everyone is identity-verified and no one is anonymous, if that is how the platform chose to run itself and if that is where the users chose to be, without stripping away the right to anonymity and privacy from those who want to keep it.

What can you do?

We will continue to engage with policymakers directly on the Online Safety Bill, on proposals for online identity and age verification wherever they arise, and on related issues such as encryption, privacy, and surveillance. By supporting our work, either as members or as donors, you are helping us to stand up for you and your rights at the highest levels of power. We couldn’t be more grateful for your support. You can also sign up for updates on your freedom of speech rights and the Bill at https://saveonlinespeech.org.

If you want to take direct action, contact your MP about the Online Safety Bill, and help them to understand your concerns. We know that many MPs believe the Bill is just about children’s safety on social media platforms, and don’t necessarily understand the wider implications and unintended consequences for privacy and freedom of speech which could arise for all of us. You matter, your voice matters, and you should make sure your MP hears it.

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