Internet anonymity – a letter to my MP

Following the shocking murder of an MP in October 2021, many politicians have called for curbs on internet anonymity – though there’s not at present been any indication that anyonymity had anything to do with the killing. The text below is the letter that I wrote to my MP regarding the proposals.

For those who need additional context, my MP is Diane Abbott, the first black woman to be elected to the UK’s parliament. Various examinations of abuse on Twitter have shown that she is the recipient – by a very, very long way – of more abuse than any other UK public figure, and much of that abuse is shockingly racist. It is in that context that she has often spoken out about the problems of online anonymity.

Personally, I believe that she is mistaken, and the letter below sets out why, and the alternative actions that I think would be more successful. Should you decide to write to your own MP, you may find some of the points here worth raising. You may also want to look at an earlier post, In praise of anonymity

Dear Ms Abbott,

I write, as one of your supporters and constituents (and a former Labour Party member), to express my very grave reservations regarding proposals to end online anonymity. I realise that you have spoken in favour of such, and I’m aware of the shocking amount of racist material that is directed at you.

Nevertheless, I hope you will read and indulge my attempt to persuade you that there are better solutions. Back in 1989 I set up what was one of the UK’s first internet mailing lists for LGBTQ people; in the thirty years since then, I have spent much time managing online forums of different types and sizes, so I believe I have a certain amount of experience and insight to share. Additionally, I have a degree in Computing Science, and worked for twenty five years as a computer journalist. Beyond the information in the rest of this letter, I would be very happy to meet in person, should you wish for clarification, or simply to pick my brains.

A vital lifeline

The first point that I would like to stress is that anonymity online can be a vital lifeline. Whether it is for LGBTQ people, especially young ones, seeking information about coming out or sexual health, for abuse survivors reaching out for support, for whistle-blowers reporting wrong-doing, there are many examples where people only feel comfortable expressing what they want to say, as long as they are sure it cannot easily be traced back to them.

Over my years running LGBTQ spaces online, it has been apparent that for many people, taking the first steps to self-realisation online is vital. They can reach out for support in a way that they may not feel comfortable doing in person, secure in the knowledge that they won’t be outed.

For those who are involved in some sexual practises, including sex workers, or those in the fetish community, being able to maintain a separate online identity is vitally important. People may risk losing jobs, or even children, if a link is made between, for example, their enjoyment of bondage, and a real identity, by someone with prurient interest.

Abusers are often happy to use their names

It’s also worth recalling that many people are quite happy to use their names to abuse others online. Facebook’s real names policy does not stop people being abusive on that platform. We saw on Jan 6th that some people were so confident that they were ‘doing the right thing’ that they were streaming live as they attacked the US Capitol.

So, while some people may decide not to be abusive under their real name, many others will still be happy to do so.

Identity security and availability

The Electoral Commission reported recently that as many as three million people in the UK may not have photo ID. What ID would be required to open a social media account, and who would manage it?

Many young people may have neither driving licence nor passport, and could be lacking utility bills in their name. How then would, say, a closeted teenager go about opening a social media account, so that they can reach out to people for support? Do they have to explain to disapproving parents first why they want to go online? Does a domestic abuse victim have to try and get permission from an abuser who might be deliberately withholding their ID? This sort of thing could, literally, be deadly to people.

And if there is an ID system, who looks after it? Are we to expect the social media companies to handle this, just for the UK? If they do, how secure will it be? It’s not so long ago we had the phone hacking scandals, and it became clear how easy it was for journalists or private investigators to talk people in call centres into giving out personal information about celebrities.

Do we really expect that social media companies will do any better? The same social media companies whose algorithms sometimes seem more likely to block someone quoting abuse they’ve received, than doing anything to the original abuser? The same social media companies who routinely contract out work to low paid people in offshore locations?

Given the many different things for which social media is used, this information could be a goldmine for people who want to out someone, for angry ex partners trying to find a person’s new name, for malicious people trying to get someone fired from a job because of their sexual habits.

This, in my view, is one of the most potentially damaging aspects of the proposal, given the information people share via social media.

The Names vs the Nameless

Tone is often set from the top. But we now live in a fractured society where not just those on social media, but those in the traditional media and – sadly – in politics are apt to play fast and loose. We have seen spectacles such as judges described as “Enemies of the people,” fellow MPs as “scum”, people working to stop deportations as “activist lawyers” and even senior politicians suggesting it’s reasonable to boo football players for taking the knee, or TV shows where people advocate for the belief that migrants should be left to drown in the channel, instead of saved.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably, seriously, deny that this has an impact. That, for instance, when politicians refuse to denounce the booing of the England squad, it doesn’t embolden racists online.

We have seen incidents lately where people with a high profile have made shocking attacks on others via Twitter, and yet seem to get away with it, at least initially. All too often, it seems that if you have a high enough profile, you can be insulated from the usual rules of behaviour – a point made explicit by the treatment of Donald Trump’s accounts for far too long.

While this sort of discourse is present in our media and our society, there will be people who will be encouraged by it. When people talk of immunity for those whose actions may cause some people to drown, there will be others who will start to believe that such actions can be justified. There may be some, on the precarious edge of society, who will be driven further towards it.

Removing anonymity will not stop these messages being heard, because they are not being made anonymously. It will simply be an attack by the Named upon the Nameless.

The social media machine

Beyond the traditional media, we also have become shockingly aware over recent months of the ways in which algorithms used by social media companies drive people towards ever more extremist content, whether that be regarding immigration, vaccination, Brexit or other topics.

At the same time, there are numerous examples of the same companies failing to manage complaints in a rational way. As I mention earlier, sometimes people who quote the abuse they receive end up having their own account suspended. Some report threats to rape or attack them, only to receive a notification that the message sent to them does not breach “community standards.”

That a friend of mine can be suspended for jokingly commenting “that arse!” on a photo of himself, while Facebook remains full of far right material is nothing short of astonishing.

I do not believe that It is anonymity that is the real problem. It is the failure of social media companies to manage complaints, to implement algorithms that work – both for detecting offensive material, and for discovering new material – and to provide people with tools to control their interactions with others.

Rather than asking the companies to gather more personal information about users  – potentially putting vulnerable people at risk – we should be asking them to be open about how their algorithms work, require them to have proper reporting and reviewing systems in place, and to take proportionate action, no matter who the user is.

In summary

I have, I know, taken much of your time with this, so I shall finish with a brief summary:

  • Anonymity is crucial to the free expression of many marginalised groups.
  • For many people, it is the only way they feel they can get support.
  • Millions of people, especially young people, have no passport or driving licence. They may have no utility bills in their name either. Are we to disenfranchise these people from social media?
  • Social media companies cannot be trusted to protect sensitive personal data; it will likely be leaked, leading to abusers finding victims, people being outed, and worse.
  • Experience has shown that many people will still make abusive comments, even when using their real name.
  • Inadequate reporting and handling of reports by social media companies is a far bigger problem than anonymous commenting.
  • Rules must be seen to be evenly applied; all too often, verified accounts appear to get an easier ride than others.
  • The tone of a society is often set from the top. When traditional media are free to use harsh words (“Enemies of the people” etc), that has an impact. Removing anonymity yet doing nothing about that is simply an attack by the Names on the Nameless.
  • Algorithms that direct people to ever more extreme content are also a real and pressing issue. I strongly believe that this is far more likely to cause radicalisation, and tip someone over the edge than the ability to comment anonymously.

In short, I firmly believe that the removal of anonymity will not solve many of the problems of social media and online abuse. It will not make our politics nicer and more pleasant, either – for that, politicians have to stick to their words, and rein in their attacks on opponents, for more than just the few weeks that will seem appropriate in the aftermath of last week’s awful attack.

I urge you, please, to reconsider your support for the removal of anonymity, and reiterate my willingness to meet and explain any of these points in more detail.

Yours sincerely,

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