Online Anonymity — [Esther McVey in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud 2:30 pm, 13th January 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered online anonymity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my right hon. Friend Damian Hinds, who originally intended to lead this debate. I am pleased to step in this afternoon but saddened that we will not hear from him on this important subject.

We need to debate if and how Government could and should tackle anonymity online. We must do so, as the public are already living through the hate and misinformation in debate on a daily basis. If we do not tackle anonymity, the horror, the suicides, the bullying, racism and misogyny as well as people being put off jobs and democracy being undermined will continue unchecked. In 2021, the public expects proper leadership on tech.

An Ofcom report last year said that the average adult spends 4.2 hours a day online, with children spending even more time on their screens. Since the covid lockdown required us to work, play and learn online, I expect that the average daily screen time has shot up even more across all demographics. Yet, bizarrely, using tech more is not increasing confidence. More than three quarters of UK adults express a concern about going online, and fewer parents feel the benefits of being online outweigh the risks for their children, with the proportion falling from 65% in 2015 to 55% in 2019.

Research shows that 47% of children and teens say they saw content that they wish they had not seen during the first lockdown. Tech companies know that but have failed to do enough to protect people. What is the impact of the internet being the wild west at home? When children want a social media account, it is trolls, hate, abuse, bullying and exposure to criminality that keeps parents up at night, not their kids’ ability to express themselves freely. When smart individuals consider going into public office, journalism or for a promotion that that will be media facing, they will hesitate and perhaps not apply, as they have seen somebody’s appearance, voice, height and intelligence eviscerated on Twitter.

During the pandemic, families must work out whether what they are reading is credible or from covid deniers and anti-vaxxers, and we constantly have to undo the damage that scammers cause. Governments around the world are dealing with the impact of online actors who are attempting to subvert the democratic processes. Anonymity is, of course, not the sole cause of all these problems and, in some important circumstances, it enables people to speak freely to protect themselves or the public. Freedom of expression is integral to our society. However, if people are asked whether anonymity is a big problem online, the answer will be yes. The Minister might say that anonymous nasties will be dealt with by the coming online harms legislation. The Government will legislate to require social media platforms to take more effective actions against abuse, whether that is anonymous or not. That is quite right and there is much to praise in the Government’s White Paper. The focus on protecting children and empowering adults to stay safe online is incredibly important. The ministerial online harms work, though overdue, is to be commended.

I do not believe the proposed Bill goes far enough on a range of issues. The White Paper barely addressed the issue of anonymity, despite accepting in the document that anonymous abuse is on the rise. I was also surprised to note that the Government’s consultation did not specifically ask about anonymous abuse. That was a missed opportunity. Most men and women on the Clapham omnibus would expect Government to address anonymity fully when considering online harms. That said, respondents to the consultation told the Government what they thought anyway. The paper says,

“Respondents put forward arguments both for and against preserving online anonymity, particularly in regard to protecting the identity of those individuals who flag harmful content.”

It would be useful to know more about respondents’ comments about anonymity to this and other Government consultations. We should consult properly on this subject.

The new legislative framework for tech companies will create a duty of care to their users. The legislation will require companies to prevent the proliferation of illegal content and activity online, and ensure that children who use their services are not exposed to harmful content. As it stands, the tech companies do not know who millions of their users are, so they do not know who their harmful operators are, either. By failing to deal with anonymity properly, any regulator or police force, or even the tech companies themselves, will still need to take extensive steps to uncover the person behind the account first, before they can tackle the issue or protect a user.

The Law Commission acknowledged that anonymity often facilitates and encourages abusive behaviours. It said that combined with an online disinhibition effect, abusive behaviours, such as pile-on harassment, are much easier to engage in on a practical level. The Online Harms White Paper focuses on regulation of platforms and the Law Commission’s work addresses the criminal law provisions that apply for individuals. It is imperative, in my view, that the Law Commission’s report and proposals are fully debated prior to the online harms Bill passing through Parliament. They should go hand in hand.

Standing in Parliament, I must mention that online abuse is putting people off going into public service and speaking up generally. One reason I became interested in this subject was the awful abuse I received for daring to have a baby and be an MP. Attacking somebody for being a mum or suggesting that a mum cannot do this job is misogynistic and, quite frankly, ridiculous, but I would be lying if I said that I did not find some of the comments stressful and upsetting, particularly given I had just had a baby.

Is there a greater impediment to freedom of expression than a woman being called a whore online or being told that she will be raped for expressing a view? It happens. It happens frequently and the authors are often anonymous. Fantastic groups like 50:50 Parliament, the Centenary Action Group, More United and Compassion in Politics are tackling this head on to avoid men and women being put off running for office. One of the six online harm asks from Compassion in Politics is to significantly reduce the prevalence and influence of anonymous accounts online.

It is also worth looking at cases where anonymity is not abusive, just bizarre or mean. These people often fly just on the right side of not committing a crime, so it cannot be touched, but they are no less stressful, damaging or awful to deal with. For example, last week I posted a picture of my nephew Rhys on social media. Some hon. Members may have seen it. I did this with my sister’s permission, I add, because she is stronger than I am. Rhys has Down’s syndrome and is clinically vulnerable. I wanted to show the happy face of a young man who had just had his first vaccination in Berkshire—not in my patch. I wanted to do this partly to praise the NHS and Government teams, which are doing such an awesome job of rolling out the vaccine, and to show that as the vaccine programme moves forward, it is not just elderly people who are receiving protection.

An anonymised account—interestingly, called “The truth”—immediately called foul. Within a few tweets, I had been accused of pulling rank and helping my family to jump the queue. They said that there is no lowness that Tories will go to. “The truth”—he, she or bot—copied in LBC journalists, a barrister, Piers Morgan, Keir Starmer and my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson. Was that to bring me down? I do not know. It was bizarre.

I personally feel sorry for “The truth”—the account, not the truth itself—and I did not personally feel stressed by that. However, others may not feel the same. Anyone, in my view, who can look at the smiling face of a young disabled person and immediately feel negative, angry or want to make political points is a very sad individual, but I will never know what damage that account has done by attempting to discredit the vaccination system and an elected Member of Parliament.

Millions of anonymous accounts spend all day sending messages that are not abusive, but also not true, in full knowledge that other mad people will join in with them. This can be debilitating for people to deal with. It causes a lot of stress. We know that such behaviour would not be acceptable offline and the people behind anonymous accounts would rarely say these things to our faces in person; it is also not okay online.

In conclusion, I think we agree that decisive action needs to be taken against racism, antisemitism, misogyny and other forms of hate crime. What is illegal offline should be illegal online. On anonymous accounts, I am not convinced that we must put up with the downsides because of the advantages. The application of anonymity in the context of whistleblowing, to an investigative journalist or to an authority has little in common with anonymity that deliberately destabilises, attacks people and whips up emotions on social media.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister, but I am not convinced at this stage that the Government have done enough to investigate this matter. I do not feel that they have done enough to understand the public’s views, to pressurise tech companies to take action or to give users all the choices to have anonymity-free social media experiences, if that is what they want. Some people love to use anonymous accounts and some people love to follow them. They should probably be allowed to do that, but let us give people the choice. As I said at the start, if we do not tackle anonymity, the horror, the suicides, the bullying, the racism, the misogyny and people being put off jobs will continue unchecked. We have the tech to do it and it can be done, so let us do it.