19 October 2021

A clampdown on online anonymity is not the way to pay tribute to David Amess

By

Parliamentarians are understandably angry about the brutal murder of a colleague. Sir David Amess was an exemplary parliamentarian, an extraordinary friend and a kind soul who will be dearly missed.

This does not, however, justify every reaction. One suggestion we’ve seen repeatedly since Friday’s tragic events is a clampdown on social media. In the Commons tributes to Sir David, his close friend Mark Francois MP called for a “David’s Law” to end anonymous online accounts. Home Secretary Priti Patel and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab have also claimed that anonymous trolling increases the risk of physical attacks against parliamentarians.

This is, frankly, a bizarre response to the attack. There is not the slightest indication that Amess’ death is related to abuse directed towards parliamentarians on social media. In fact, all reports indicate links to radicalisation and Islamist terrorism.

Nevertheless, Facebook and Twitter have become favoured bogeyman for politicians of all stripes in response to every societal issue. It’s much easier to blame Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey than to address deeper issues. In this case, ministers do not appear to want to take responsibility for broader policy failures, not least the inadequacy of ‘Prevent’ counter-terrorist strategy.

Beyond the fact that it has nothing to do with Friday’s attack, ending online anonymity and clampdowns on internet giants are seriously misguided.

For starters, there are plenty of genuine reasons why someone might not want to not reveal their identity. Gay kids who want to be themselves but are not out at home. Women and their children hiding from abusive men. Whistleblowers and dissidents from authoritarian countries who bring attention to injustice and wrongdoing. It’s a privilege, not the norm, to be able to express yourself freely without fear of vicious personal or professional repercussions.

Then there are many who want to separate their personal and professional lives from their online gaming persona and political opinions. The beauty of the internet is that it allows people to be someone else. This is particularly necessary in an era of ‘cancel culture,’ where your entire career and life can be destroyed by expressing an opinion that was the norm a decade ago.

Ending online anonymity would also raise other serious privacy issues. Does the Government really want to force tech companies to take a copy of our drivers’ licence or passport before we can use a service? Where and how would this information be authenticated and stored?

Nor is it all that clear that online anonymity actually drives bad behaviour. Indeed, some of the worst abuse comes from identifiable accounts. A painstaking study from Katja Rost, Lea Stahel, and Bruno S. Frey, which looked at 532,197 comments on 1,612 online petitions, found that ‘non-anonymous individuals are more aggressive compared to anonymous individuals’. They theorise that online firestorms are driven by the desire to enforce social norms. That is, identifiable accounts follow the group pressure while anonymous accounts act more independently since they are not seeking social status.

The Government is not currently seeking to end online anonymity. However, they are pursuing the ‘Online Safety Bill,’ which would require tough action by social media firms not just against unlawful content but also, ominously, ‘legal but harmful’ speech.

This is a frightening piece of legislation. The vague language, which would require the removal of any content that could have an adverse ‘physical or psychological impact’, will empower ministers and bureaucrats to require extensive online censorship, and even if not intended, will lead to overly censorious policies from firms keen to avoid large fines.

None of that is to deny that there is plenty of harassment and abuse that should be removed from platforms. But there is also mockery, criticism and vicious argumentation. It is genuinely hard to distinguish between those two, but in a democracy we are entitled, if not expected, to constantly question our leaders. Many disagree about the precise line, but this kind of legislation risks getting rid of a plethora of genuine free speech.

We should always remember that censorship does not make the world a safer place. It does not stop bad people thinking or doing bad things. It just pushes the speech into underground platforms, where it cannot be scrutinised or rebutted. Ruth Smeeth, the former Labour MP who experienced extensive anti-Semitic abuse and death threats, makes the important point that content removal makes it more difficult to identify and respond to threats.

There has been much righteous anger in recent days. This must not be turned into ill-considered policymaking.

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Matthew Lesh is Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.