Analysis Politics

Does the Online Safety Bill go far enough?

Ed Halford examines the relationship between anonymity and online abuse

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In the Queen’s Speech on 11 May, the government outlined an Online Safety Bill, which promised to protect “democratically important content” and put in place new protections against dangerous content for adult and younger users. The Bill forces social media companies to recognise a duty of care and imposes new responsibilities concerning the removal of abusive content from their online platforms and messaging services.

The Bill was originally conceived by Theresa May’s government back in April 2019. The considerable time it has taken for the reforms to reach the beginning of the legislative process is testament to meaningful changes often facing delays due to the turnover in administrations. The main provisions of the Bill give Ofcom extensive powers to tackle social media companies’ failure to act more quickly and effectively against online abuse. If the Bill is passed unaltered, Ofcom will be able to issue fines of up to £18 million or ten percent of a companies’ global turnover. In addition to these powers, the scope of Ofcom’s jurisdiction will be expanded to include public communication channels and services. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter will therefore be vulnerable to fines if they do not remove abusive content which is sent through DMs.

Despite the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden arguing that the Bill will be responsible for ushering in a “new age of accountability for tech”, there is no requirement for social media companies to create more vigorous checks for identifying users. It is unlikely that Dowden’s Bill will be successful in the “crack down on racist abuse on social media” if anonymity is still left unchallenged. Recently, sports news outlets such as Sky Sports and football associations, clubs and players across the UK participated in an 84-hour social media boycott to demonstrate their solidarity in confronting racist abuse. What is most significant is the FA’s acknowledgement in an online statement that boycotts alone “won’t eradicate abuse on its own” and their support for “the Government to introduce strong legislation quickly”. Currently, the provisions of the Bill are not likely to enter into effect until 2023 and Kick it Out Chief Executive Tony Burnett has complained that “progress through parliament” needs to be “faster than the current plan”.

Thierry Henry has inspired renewed pressure on social media companies to remove a user’s right to retain their anonymity. If social media companies genuinely intend to challenge racism, then Henry has insisted that more details should be required of users before they access online platforms, as opposed to only asking for “email addresses” and a “phone number”. The Labour MP Diane Abbott has reinforced the centrality of anonymity in facilitating online abuse, as she has revealed that the ability of users to be “completely anonymous” has been pivotal in the police struggling to identify the users responsible for the sexist and racist abuse directed her way. Unfortunately, the potential for amendments to be made to the Online Safety Bill offer the only hope for the requirement that more personal details are asked of users.

Twitter has defended a user’s right to remain anonymous by stating “everyone has the right to share their voice without requiring a government ID.” Allowing users to remain anonymous is promoted by Twitter as a positive feature, as it can be instrumental in providing people with a platform to speak out against “oppressive regimes”. However, the ability to be anonymous serves as an accountability ‘loophole’ for those who want to dish out racist abuse, as it provides them with the assurance that they can spread racial hatred without facing the force of the law. The relationship between anonymous accounts and online abuse is strong, as Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge recently told Newsround that “many of those responsible use anonymous accounts, meaning they escape being held to account for the disgusting content they post online”.

By no means are social media companies turning a blind eye towards online abuse, as since 12 September Twitter have removed 7,000 football “tweets” which were “targeting the football conversation with violations of the Twitter rules”. However, the social media boycott has not deterred users from directing racist abuse towards football players, as Marcus Rashford was recently subjected to “at least 70” abusive messages on Twitter after Manchester United’s defeat in the Europa League final.

There appears little prospect of social media companies heeding calls to require users to provide more details of their personal identity. In the future, whether the police will be successful in identifying perpetrators of abusive content largely depends on the willingness of parliamentarians to amend the Online Safety Bill.

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