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Online Anonymity

Volume 793: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to legislate to prevent anonymous social media accounts and anonymous online forum posts.

My Lords, online anonymity is an important part of a free and open internet, but being anonymous online does not give anyone the right to abuse others. The Government have made it clear that social media companies should have processes in place to tackle anonymous abuse on their platforms. The joint DCMS/Home Office White Paper will be published in the winter, detailing legislative and non-legislative measures to tackle online harms and setting clear responsibilities for tech companies.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am sure that, like me, he is appalled at the way electronic media has been used to send threats of death as well as physical and often sexual violence to people, and disproportionately to women. We know the possibility now exists to track down the senders of such messages. Can the Minister assure me that in the review currently being undertaken, serious consideration will be given to legislation providing for the unmasking and criminal prosecution of those sending hate messages?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point, and of course we all agree that online abuse is distressing and unacceptable. The issue is where this abuse becomes criminal and unacceptable. There is a balance to be struck. As far as anonymity is concerned, when it becomes criminal behaviour there are means by which people who do this anonymously can be traced. In fact, the vast majority of people who think they are doing these things anonymously are actually traceable. It is only the most devious and malevolent people who use technology to avoid being traced, but they are a very small minority. As far as the online harm review is concerned, we will be looking at a number of online harms, including abuse, and looking at where legislation or other non-legislative measures are necessary.

My Lords, I want to be helpful for a change, and I hope that I shall get a positive response from the Minister. Can I pass on a suggestion that I picked up, along with the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe? Will the Minister consider following the example of some other countries in Europe and appoint an internet ombudsman?

I am grateful for that positive suggestion, which we will certainly consider. I do not know what our position on that is; I am not completely clear about what the role of an internet ombudsman would be. Normally where questions about how to regulate the internet are concerned, they become much more complicated than they first appear.

Will the Minister take this chance to confirm that the liberal principle, that you can do what you like until it affects somebody else, will be written into any further legislation? Will the Government make sure that that is a key consideration? If they do, much of the concern will go away and reassurance will be given.

“Do as you would be done by” is a sensible basis for progressing. However, there are people who would not subscribe to that—I think “evil” is the correct word for them—and we have to take those into account. The Law Commission is looking at the body of law which allows the authorities to trace people to make sure that it is effective. It will publish its first report at the beginning of November. We will make sure that the law is capable of pursuing those who will not follow the precept mentioned by the noble Lord.

My Lords, in such instances as we are imagining in a Question like this, there are the individuals who, under the cloak of anonymity, use the internet for purposes that may be legitimate or not, but there are also the platforms that host those messages. I believe that in Germany a mechanism is used to make it mandatory on the part of platforms to shut down harmful messages within a certain time beyond which fines are imposed and measures taken. Might the Minister and Government consider such a device?

The noble Lord is right. I believe that the law in Germany is that one has to take down abusive content within eight hours once the host has been informed of it. There is some doubt whether that complies with EU law. Nevertheless, it is something we will look at, because the social media code of practice also includes such measures, which at the moment are voluntary. Many of the large and well-known media sites try to comply with such things; the problem is that new sites appear and gain huge scale very quickly and do not always behave in the same way. The whole point of the White Paper which will be published in the winter is to look at areas where we might need legislation.

My Lords, we seem to take it as read that anonymity is a necessary and virtuous element of the web. Should we not question that assumption? It seems the only real necessity for it is to allow people in a totalitarian state to challenge their Government; otherwise, I cannot see why in a free and open society we should not have free and open communication. People would then be shamed out of the terrible conduct that is now going on.

I say with all due respect that I do not think that it is quite as simple as my noble friend suggests. For example, in an abusive relationship, should a woman—it is usually but not always women—not be able to ask for advice and have discussions with other people anonymously? Similarly, people could report crime anonymously. There are occasions where being able to go online anonymously may be a good thing.