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

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and one that I was just about to make by citing the “know your customer” verification requirements in financial institutions, which are part of efforts to prevent money laundering, for example.

Financial institutions, although they have improved immensely in technology over the past few years, are nowhere near as knowledgeable as the great tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google in scooping up and managing data, although they tell us that they manage the data in privacy-conscious ways. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, their business models are driven by access to data. There are real concerns about the consolidation and monopoly control of data, which are not within the remit of this debate, but, as he suggests, the idea that these organisations cannot obtain and protect effectively the identity of their users is clearly ridiculous.

Such checks would not even require platform companies to hold user identity data themselves. Instead, as in financial services, secure, expert identity verification services could allow users to share only aspects of their identity—the minimum required to access online platforms. Again, anonymity would be guaranteed relative to other users. The fact that my bank did a “know your customer” check would not mean that my bank data was suddenly accessible to other customers. I think we accept that principle. At the same time, identity would be available to relevant law enforcement authorities in the event of suspected wrongdoing. The very act of requiring a “know your customer” check would also deter malicious agents from using the cloak of anonymity and would therefore increase the friction in the system.

As a complement to those ideas, we could require platform companies to put up deterrents against abuse and harm, ensuring that customers know that their identity could be shared with law enforcement agencies in the event of wrongdoing. I know that the Minister’s online safety legislation, which is in development, will put a duty of care on the large platforms. Perhaps she will tell us why she does not feel a more proactive duty to prevent and deter harm and abuse would not be appropriate, as it would require platforms to know their customers.

It is important to recognise that people are always customers. Even if those who use Twitter and Facebook are not paying for the service, they are still customers and are effectively paying in an exchange of data, so I feel that the model of “know your customer” is particularly appropriate. We could also consider imposing appropriate forms of liability on companies in the event that they are unable to provide identity information where courts and law enforcement require it.

None of those policies would obstruct the privacy of whistleblowers, children expressing themselves or victims finding solace and solidarity online. None of them would require companies to identify customers on their platforms to other customers. Some of them would not even require companies to have the identity data themselves, allowing the possibility of secure identity solutions held outside of these companies. Some of them are likely to be practices that already happen, but voluntarily and not systematically.

The point is not to pursue one specific policy. The point is for the Government to have a consultation and a debate that sets out policies that achieve those objectives, with a robust set of sophisticated digital identity options that can be statutorily enforced. Inaction, which is the Government’s current default of delaying action in this area, is a choice that evades trade-offs, avoids actions and lets victims down, so I ask the Minister to use this moment to tackle online anonymity head-on. We must grasp this opportunity, and to do so we must answer three questions.

First, what is the right identity verification required to place on online platforms with user-generated content? Can we ensure that those cover what might be needed for effective action against illegal and, in some instances, harmful behaviour? How can those requirements on platform companies have impact, with the right mix of incentives and sanctions for companies?

Secondly, how can we ensure that those online platforms are best co-ordinated with law enforcement authorities, where needed? Should Ofcom’s oversight of platforms’ duty-of-care performance cover how effectively companies work with law enforcement authorities? I understand, for example, that Twitter charges law enforcement officials to provide information on the identity of its users. Will the Minister verify that?

Thirdly, what confidence do we have in the jurisdictional coverage of existing and potential identity verification requirements? Do those apply to the range of internationally headquartered and popular platforms, or are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter able to evade coverage as a result of country-of-origin principles?

I hope that the Minister will answer those questions, as the right answers could materially improve our public sphere and address the examples of online harm and abuse that have been raised in this debate. Platforms would be able to verify users easily, law enforcement authorities could pursue justice appropriately, those hiding online abuse behind anonymity would be deterred and, most of all, users would navigate online platforms with far greater assurance of no abuse or extremism.

With that final point, I will close, because the pandemic has demonstrated that our lives are lived online to an extent never before seen. Even when we return to social contact—we all hope soon—as opposed to social distance, the internet, the web and social media platforms will continue to play a greater part in our lives. The hon. Member for Stroud set out the enormous increase in online activity that we have seen as a consequence of the pandemic. I want my constituents to be able to have trust and confidence online, and in those they meet and engage with online. I want them to feel secure in their online and digital lives, because without that they will be handicapped and prevented from engaging as full citizens in what is increasingly a digital world. I ask the Minister to ensure that that digital world is as safe for everyone as the real world is.