Online Anonymity — [Esther McVey in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:46 pm on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:46 pm, 13th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Ms McVey. I look forward to doing so on many further occasions. I thank Damian Hinds for securing this exceptionally important debate. I also thank Siobhan Baillie for her opening remarks, which were more than those of a stand-in. They set out the concerns and the personal experience really well and illustrated why this is such an exceptionally important topic to debate. I am sure that many more Members would be here had it not been for the confusion about whether this debate would be taking place. I know that this is an issue of personal, professional and constituency concern to many Members on both sides of the House; it is not a party-political issue.

I want to start by citing the right hon. Member for East Hampshire, who is aware of the challenge of online anonymity for bullying and negative self-perception among young people. He has spoken often about that, and he noted that in 2018 the OECD found that English schools have the highest reported rates of cyber-bullying out of 48 countries. As we debate online anonymity today, we have to keep in mind the deeply troubling human impact that anonymous presence online can have, not least on our young people.

The Government ought to know about the challenge of online anonymity, because their own Commission for Countering Extremism published academic work in 2019 that noted:

“Increased anonymity is associated with increased extremist …language” on Twitter and YouTube. Tackling abuse and extremism online must mean tackling the worst parts of anonymity online.

We do not have to rely on academic work or the OECD to know the pain and harm that online anonymity can cause. The hon. Member for Stroud set out some of her experiences, and I would just like to say how sorry I was to hear of them. My hon. Friend Justin Madders set out some of his experiences with Twitter, and it is highly regrettable—it is not the first time I have heard it—that Twitter does not take complaints from Members of Parliament or members of the public seriously enough.

Just last month, we heard the strong testimony of my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge, who highlighted over 90,000 posts aimed at her. Many were antisemitic, misogynistic and ageist, and many were posted by people hidden behind anonymous screens. We know from several colleagues, from the valuable testimony of groups such as the Antisemitism Policy Trust, and from painful personal experience that online anonymity too often accompanies online abuse. Like almost all Members of Parliament, I have experienced abuse online, particularly when I dare to say something that some people might consider to be controversial. I have never been able to find out who was behind the most violent instances of such abuse.

As the Government note, there can be trade-offs in regulating online anonymity. Anonymity can be a shield for brave whistleblowers, for victims finding online refuge, or for children and minorities finding courageous self-expression. We must not forget that the internet and social media applications have many positive consequences for people who can use them. They are free and widely available, and they allow communication across generations, geography, countries and all kinds of barriers. Simply banning online anonymity is unlikely to be workable or desirable. We have to be sensitive to the trade-offs here. Protecting privacy is as much a priority in those cases as protecting against harm is in abuse cases.

However, I would say to the Minister that inaction is the worst trade-off of them all. The Secretary of State said:

“It is a challenging area, this point about anonymity,” and that the Government will do nothing on it in the proposed online safety Bill,

“But of course we will continue to keep it under review.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2020; Vol. 686, c. 157.]

The Government are evading tough trade-offs altogether. That inaction means turning a blind eye to misinformation online. It means a failure to look at victims of abuse online—young people, minority communities and our fellow Members of Parliament—and a failure to assure them that we will do better by them. It is a failure to stand by the victims in these horrendous examples.

It does not have to be this way. Protecting whistleblowers does not need to come at the cost of protecting people who perpetrate abuse. We could do things differently. Indeed, there are already legal provisions that seek to balance anonymity and online responsibility. Norwich Pharmacal orders, or NPOs, can help obtain the identity of a party in court cases where there is alleged wrongdoing. The regulations in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 give public authorities the ability to access communications data for potential criminal investigations. As we know, however, the sheer scale of online abuse and extremism means that there is more that we could and should do.

This is not a new issue. As I may have said in the past, my background before coming into Parliament was working in technology, particularly on the networks that now form the internet, for 20 years. The rights and wrongs of anonymity on the internet is a question that is as old as the internet itself, which we should remember is now decades old—it is no longer a rebellious teenager.

Three years ago, I attended a conference held by Ditchley on our rights and responsibilities on the internet, and the right to identity was a particular issue. One of the things that I want to emphasise to the Minister is that, as well as considering the right to anonymity on the internet, we must also consider the right to identity. For example, people should be able to prove who they are when they need to. Companies, services and Governments have a right to ask for identity in certain circumstances, as we do in the physical world. Anonymity should not be treated as a zero-sum concept, but should be qualified by the question, “Anonymous to whom and for how long?”

In real life, we can walk through a crowd without the people around us knowing who we are, but we accept that we are not permanently anonymous. If, for example, a police officer has a reason to review CCTV footage of the area, or we go into a bar and look young enough that we are asked about our age, we may be asked to prove our identity. We would not expect to be able to take out a loan or mortgage without proving our identity. Different degrees of anonymity apply to different situations in the real world. Why should we not reveal on the internet as much of our identity as is appropriate to the situation?

In some ways, as well as a question of principle, this is a question of design, on the way in which permissions and information are required and set out for applications on the internet. It is up to the Government to support a debate about how a spectrum of identity and anonymity should be implemented. A key aim should be to increase the friction that cyber-criminals face when pursuing crime. I do not think anyone is arguing that putting in place identity requirements and appropriate measures to support identification will end cyber-crime or cyber-abuse, but it would increase the friction associated with the crime, and that would help to reduce it.

We should consider a number of areas to address that, some of which have already been raised by the hon. Member for Stroud and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. We should consider a requirement for companies to know their customers’ identities. Contrary to the Government’s position, requiring users to selectively share their identities with online platforms does not mean that users share their identities with the world at large. Platforms can still protect users’ anonymity on the public platform while having direct access to their identities in the event of harmful behaviour.