Eight reasons not to ban anonymity online
And something the government could do instead
Following the murder of Sir David Amess MP, the British government is considering banning anonymity online. This is strange, because Amess appears to have been murdered by an Islamist, and online anonymity having been banned wouldn’t have done anything to prevent that. It’s being framed as a sort of weird tribute to Amess because, supposedly, he supported a ban, though even that isn’t clear – one MP proposing a ban said that Amess “was appalled by what he called the vile misogynistic abuse which female MPs had to endure online and he told me very recently that he wanted something done about it.”
I think this would be a bad idea for a few reasons.
1. Anonymity is part of a free press - it allows people in sensitive positions to speak publicly, including about abuses of power to act as whistleblowers, in a way that gets seen by journalists and others to get what they’re saying picked up more widely. People in these situations often have no idea who to go to, and instead just tweet anonymously about problems in, eg, their workplaces, that they simply couldn’t if they weren’t anonymous.
An example might be a doctor or nurse at a hospital that’s neglecting patients or otherwise breaching NHS standards - anonymity allows them to speak publicly and sound the alarm without risking their own jobs. Ditto for speaking out about bad and bullying employers, where doing so without anonymity could threaten people’s future job prospects. Could Glassdoor exist if it had a real name policy?
2. Anonymity allows us to learn from people who could not speak openly for mundane professional reasons, but still have useful things to say that the rest of us can learn from. For my own part, I learned a lot during Covid from an anonymous doctor who could not tweet under his own name for professional reasons, but who made me and many others realise early on how bad Covid was going to be – while many in positions of authority were downplaying the risks. This viral piece about the reality of life during the height of Covid helped many people to understand how horrifying the pandemic was – it almost certainly couldn’t have been written if the author was not anonymous.
I follow many others in similar positions – civil servants, journalists and regulators who simply could not speak at all if they had to disclose their names publicly. We would be worse off without access to these people, although I accept the counterargument that knowing someone is a barrister is useful for discounting what they say.
3. Anonymity allows people with politically unpopular views to express their opinions without fear of repercussions. This is particularly important if you hold views that may cause you difficulty at work or university if people find out about them. Anonymous accounts allow students and other young right-wingers to do online activism without the “woke mob” getting them fired or ostracised. Conservative MPs, whose lives have been built on being openly right-wing, may underestimate how costly it can be for people in other walks of life to openly express right-wing opinions.
4. The UK doing it sets a precedent that makes it harder for the world to object when, eg, Russia does it. If social media companies end up complying with the government here, it becomes impossible for them not to comply with authoritarian and undemocratic regimes that ask them to do the same. That strengthens regimes that are hostile to Britain and its values.
5. There is a lot of potential for abuse by future governments. People are already being arrested for, eg, making nasty jokes about Grenfell. In the future it’s perfectly possible that a government could try to classify criticism of, eg, aspects of the transgender movement as “hate speech” and persecute people for what should be protected free speech. Even if this government doesn’t intend to misuse the powers, it ought to imagine what a different one would do.
6. Vulnerable people and groups can use anonymity to find others like them online without fear of reprisals from their family / communities. If someone from a fundamentalist religious background is gay, or if a woman doesn’t want to be forced into an arranged marriage, or if someone needs to flee an abusive relationship, they can use the internet to find support from other people who’ve been in the same situation. Losing anonymity means these people are more likely to be trapped in situations where they may be in danger and not know how to get out.
7. Real name verification doesn’t appear to stop online abuse. Facebook already does a version of it and lots of people just do the abuse and bullying under their real names. Similarly, of the racism directed at the black England football players after the Euros on Twitter, 99% came from real name accounts.
8. One version of banning anonymity involves allowing people to conceal their names but having to verify themselves privately to the companies. This doesn’t solve any of the above problems because data breaches can and do occur, and so the chilling effect on people I’ve described above will still take place, and if a breach does happen the people involved are potentially in big trouble, perhaps even in danger of violence in some cases.
I do think there is something the government could do instead. Identity verification online is very costly and difficult, so some services that would like to have a more rigorous verification policy cannot affordably do so. If Twitter, for example, could pretty easily verify any user that wanted to be verified, it could offer a version of the service where you could only see messages from verified accounts. A lot of people who currently receive abuse would probably do this, leaving the rest of us who prefer the version with lots of anonymous accounts, for all the reasons described above, free to use that.
Creating an optional, opt-in digital ID system that actually works – or making it easier for the private sector to provide one – could make this possible. As we’ve already seen, people are happy to be horrible under their real names, so this wouldn’t stop online abuse. But it would achieve most of what the government wants, without taking away an important shield of free speech online.