A Westminster Hall debate on online anonymity is scheduled for Wednesday 13 January 2021 at 2.30pm. The debate will be opened by Damian Hinds MP.

Background – the Online Harms White Paper

An Online Harms White Paper was published in April 2019. This set out plans for a new statutory duty of care for internet companies to protect users from harmful online content and activity. An independent regulator would oversee and enforce compliance with the duty. A consultation on the proposals closed on 1 July 2019.

Government response to the consultation (December 2020)

An initial response to the consultation was published in February 2020 and said, among other things, that the Government was minded to make Ofcom the regulator.

The Government’s full response was published in December 2020. This confirmed that an Online Safety Bill would introduce a duty of care to make companies responsible for the safety of their users. Ofcom would be the regulator. The legislation would define the harmful content that would be in scope. It would mainly tackle illegal activity and prevent children from being exposed to inappropriate material (e.g. pornography). However it would also address other types of harm – for example, misinformation about vaccines.

What did the response say on anonymity?

The Government’s response acknowledged that anonymous abuse can have a significant impact on victims. According to the Government, its proposed framework would address this form of abuse, while protecting freedom of expression and the legitimate use of online anonymity by groups such as human rights advocates, whistleblowers and survivors of abuse. The forthcoming legislation would therefore “not put any new limits on online anonymity”. The response set out how anonymous abuse would be tackled: 

  • Under the duty of care, all companies in scope will be expected to address anonymous online abuse that is illegal through effective systems and processes. Where companies providing Category 1 [“high risk, high reach”] services prohibit legal but harmful online abuse, they will need to ensure their terms and conditions are clear about how this applies to abuse perpetrated anonymously. They will then need to enforce these terms and conditions consistently and transparently.
  • Being anonymous online does not give anyone the right to abuse others. The police have a range of legal powers to identify individuals who attempt to use anonymity to escape sanctions for online abuse, where the activity is illegal. The government is continuing to review with law enforcement whether the current powers are sufficient to tackle illegal anonymous abuse online. The outcome of that work will inform the government’s future position in relation to illegal anonymous abuse online.
  • The government recognises that in the context of online abuse, the line between illegal and legal behaviour is not well understood. The Law Commission has reviewed the legal framework relating to abusive and offensive communications online. They are now consulting on their provisional proposals, which aim to improve the existing communications offences, ensuring the law is clearer and more effectively targets serious harm online.
  • As highlighted in their consultation, the Commission acknowledges that anonymity online often facilitates and encourages abusive behaviours. Combined with an online disinhibition effect, abusive behaviours, such as pile-on harassment, are much easier to engage in on a practical level.
  • To deal with such abusive behaviours online, the Commission has put forward several recommendations. These include replacing existing offences with new laws which more effectively criminalise online behaviours likely to cause harm. These proposals are subject to consultation.
  • The Law Commission is expected to provide its recommendations for reform of the criminal law in this area in early 2021. Once the final recommendations have been published the government will consider, where appropriate, whether to bring these recommendations into law as part of the Online Safety Bill…

The Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, was asked about online anonymity during a debate (15 December 2020) on the Government’s plans. John Nicolson said that users’ identities should be known to social media companies and should not be completely anonymous in all circumstances. Mr Dowden said:

…we have not taken powers to remove anonymity because it is very important for some people—for example, victims fleeing domestic violence and children who have questions about their sexuality that they do not want their families to know they are exploring. There are many reasons to protect that anonymity.

Dame Margaret Hodge also said that universal anonymity should no longer be protected. She referred to hostile, antisemitic, misogynistic and ageist posts, many of which were anonymous. The Secretary of State replied:

…It is a challenging area, this point about anonymity. Of course, if there is criminal conduct that the police and law enforcement agencies are investigating, they have ways of dealing with that anonymity in order to bring criminal cases. The reluctance I have had, and the Government have had, to introduce provision across the board is about how we lift the veil of anonymity while at the same time protecting some very vulnerable people who rely on it. But of course we will continue to keep it under review.