The Queen’s Speech in May 2021 announced a new bill to provide the security services with the tools they need to tackle the threat from hostile activity by states. The Government subsequently published a consultation on proposals for legislation to counter state threats which closed in July 2021. This briefing paper examines the background to these proposals and concerns about the implications for press freedom.
A Backbench Business debate on online anonymity and anonymous abuse is scheduled for Wednesday 24 March 2021.
Regulating online harms
An Online Harms White Paper (April 2019) proposed a new regulatory framework to tackle a range of harms and abuse. At its core would be a duty of care for internet companies. An independent regulator would oversee and enforce compliance. A consultation on the proposals closed in July 2019.
The Government’s full response (December 2020) to the consultation on its proposals confirmed that a duty of care would be introduced through an Online Safety Bill. Ofcom would be the regulator. The framework would apply to companies whose services:
- host user-generated content which can be accessed by users in the UK; and/or
- facilitate public or private online interaction between service users, one or more of whom is in the UK.
It would also apply to search engines.
Harmful content and activity would be defined in the legislation as that which “gives rise to a reasonably foreseeable risk of a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on individuals”.
The duty of care would require companies to take proportionate steps to address relevant illegal content and activity and to protect children. The largest tech companies would additionally be required to act in respect of content or activity on their services which is legal but harmful to adults. For further background and discussion, see the Library Paper, Regulating online harms (CBP 8743, 22 January 2021).
The Government’s response acknowledged that anonymous abuse can have a significant impact on victims. According to the Government, its proposals 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 Online Safety Bill would therefore “not put any new limits on online anonymity”.
However, under the duty of care, all companies in scope would be expected to address anonymous 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 would need to ensure their terms and conditions were clear about how this applies to abuse perpetrated anonymously.
The Government’s response also referred to Law Commission work:
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.
According to the Commission’s Reform of Communications Offences project page, its final recommendations will be published later in 2021. The Government will then decide on whether to bring these into law as part of the Online Safety Bill.
House of Commons Debate, 15 December 2020 [on online harms]
Westminster Hall debate, 13 January 2021 [on online anonymity]
- “Give social media users powers to block anonymous unverified accounts, urge MPs”, Telegraph, 1 March 2021
- “Racial abuse: Is ending anonymity on social media the answer?”, BBC, 1 February 2021
- “Twitter refuses to change policy on anonymous accounts as Arsenal’s Willian reports online abuse”, Sky Sports, 20 February 2021
- David Babbs, “New year, new internet? Why it’s time to rethink anonymity on social media”, Inforrm Blog, 31 January 2020
- NSPCC website, Online abuse
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