Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require social media platforms to offer a user identity verification process to all users; to require such platforms to offer options to limit or block interaction with other users who have chosen not to verify their identity through that process; and for connected purposes.
It is now normal to be called names like “bitch” and “whore” and to be called a liar on a daily basis. Young people are sent indecent graphic images during school lessons. Millions of people are routinely harassed through their mobile phones. Parents with dead or dying children are trolled at the most painful time of their lives. Confusion reigns from disinformation, scams and fraudulent posts, and we are regularly censoring ourselves to avoid attacks, pile-ons and rape threats. That cannot continue unchecked.
I have spoken before about the misery of the dark cyber-streets and alleyways. Our constituents are looking to us to help clean up digital Dodge City. While not all abuse is anonymous, the most frightening threats are from faceless, nameless, cowardly perpetrators who prevent us from being able to assess the true risk of a post. This cross-party Bill’s approach not only provides social media users with more choice and more control over their online lives but tackles anonymous abuse. By adding that to the measures proposed in the draft Online Safety Bill and the Secretary of State’s determination to make what is illegal offline illegal online, we can create immediate, meaningful change that will be felt throughout the UK.
I also want to say up front that, despite growing calls to ban anonymity online, that is not my proposal. I seek three simple things from social media platforms. First, give all social media users a choice: the right to verify their identity. Secondly, give social media users the option to follow or be followed only by verified accounts. Thirdly, make it clear which accounts are verified. Our blue ticks work—why should they be available only to famous people and MPs? The platforms could have already done that, but they have chosen not to do so. I think it is time that we legislate in these terms.
We cannot be perceived to ignore the impact of anonymity any longer. It is a key factor in bullying, harassment and trolling. When social media users are anonymous, they feel much more able to behave badly and abuse other users—it is a phenomenon known as the online disinhibition effect. Partly due to it being much harder to find and enforce rules against such behaviour, anonymous trolls do not get traced or banned—they often cannot be found. If they do get found, it takes them moments to create fresh accounts with new pseudonyms and continue their trolling or abuse.
We must also be honest that the ease with which accounts can be created and used anonymously, or with pseudonyms, is a major driver of harmful behaviour. We see the spread of disinformation, conspiracy theories and extremism. Organised disinformation networks exploit the ability to create fake accounts and false identities at scale. They use those networks to create false and misleading content, to spread and amplify that content, and to distort and disrupt online conversations. Facing facts, the tech companies do not know who millions of their users are, either. I understand that Facebook’s own figures estimate that 5% of its accounts are inauthentic—that is 144 million inauthentic accounts—and independent estimates range up to 25%.
I have long argued that the issue of anonymity online is a gap for the Government but not for the public. While the Government’s consultation omitted to ask questions on the topic, for many people, online abuse and anonymity go hand in hand. Famous campaigners such as Katie Price have talked movingly about the vile abuse that her disabled son Harvey receives. Ashley Cain—the dad of the late Azaylia Diamond Cain, a baby girl who died from leukaemia—had me weeping when he described the trolling that he and her mum received. I am sorry; I get upset.
A brave woman who I met through Instagram called Malin Andersson told me that when her baby was dying, trolls were telling her to kill her daughter by taking the tubes out of her face. I am sorry that I get upset, but I really struggle to say this without tears.
It is not just celebrities. I went down an awful internet rabbit hole last night looking at the scores of parents who were trolled when their children died. Some young Welsh dairy farmers were sent the most unimaginable messages from anonymous trolls, who claimed it was their fault that their son died because of their jobs. The article suggested that the trolls were vegan extremists, but the family will never know. They will live with the hate in their head, on top of their pain and grief.
It is therefore not surprising that Opinium polling suggests that 73% of adults
“support…government action to reduce the number of anonymous accounts”
and online abuse. Three quarters of UK victims online say that they have experienced abuse or harassment from anonymous accounts, and one in four people in the UK has been a victim of some type of online abuse—we can see the levels that we are dealing with.
Young women and girls are also suffering, so parents want action. I spoke to the actress and comedian Emily Atack about her awful experiences. Before she even has her breakfast in the morning, she is sent multiple pictures of penises by strangers, often anonymously—a bizarre thing to do, given how ugly they are, but she is now questioning whether she, rather than those who are sending the pictures, needs to be the one who changes.
We in this place want to deal with cyber-flashing, but as the Law Commission states, victims of cyber-flashing
“will often not know the identity of the sender”.
Girlguiding and girls in the Stroud constituency are appealing to me and my colleagues to make changes to protect them.
Over the past few years, we have all been rightly appalled by the rise of antisemitism. In 2020, the Antisemitism Policy Trust identified that nearly 40% of reported antisemitic abuse online came from fully or partially anonymous users. The Community Security Trust notes that
“online platforms…represent an especially convenient, far-reaching, anonymising and secure-feeling environment for those who wish to voice and incite hatred.”
It goes on. The stories of black footballers receiving racist abuse are well known. The incredible Kick It Out has identified social media as a “battleground of hate” and has said that everybody needs to do more to tackle the problem. It believes that we need
“better regulation and enforcement and we need social media companies to be part of the solution”.
Currently, nobody feels that they are.
I am rightly challenged about my proposals, and I welcome that. I know that inciting hatred and racist abuse is already a crime: where an online user is engaged in illegal activity, they can be identified and prosecuted using existing legislation, namely the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, but that takes years. One woman told me that when an anonymous troll threatened to “bleach” her, which is properly terrifying, it took a couple of years for him to be found and then no action was taken.
I look forward to talking to the Minister for Security and Borders to see whether enforcement of existing laws is the issue, but I still worry for victims, the police, Ofcom and the courts, who need to battle with finding the perpetrators before they can even deal with the abuse. If more people’s details were held via verification, it would undoubtedly help.
Another important challenge is protecting whistleblowers and freedom of speech. My proposals will give space for people to continue using anonymous social media handles. They could still have an online Twitter handle of @NumberOnePeppaPigFan, although we may now be able to guess who that is. They could still use social media to explore their sexuality, whistleblow and reach out to others without their name on show. In all those circumstances, they could choose whether or not to verify the account; freedom of speech and vulnerable individuals would still be protected. The greatest impediment to freedom of speech, however, is not verification, but people fearing a rape threat or a death threat for saying what they think. That is what is happening right now—so many people are not free online.
I fear that the fantastic Online Safety Bill’s lack of specific measures to tackle anonymous abuse will, unfortunately, weaken its credibility before the ink is even dry. Expectations have already been raised by headlines suggesting that the Bill will stop all abuse and that there will be multi-million-pound fines for the social media giants. If the proposals in my Bill were adopted within the Online Safety Bill, the regulator and social media platforms would understand from day one that there needs to be a change in how anonymous abuse is managed. The public would also experience immediate, tangible changes to their online experience and take back some control, rather than waiting to see whether there are more prosecutions and mega-fines.
I thank Stroud constituents, campaigners, organisations, sponsors of the Bill, peers and parliamentary colleagues for all their assistance in getting the Bill off the ground. I also thank the Joint Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for its pre-legislative scrutiny work. I know that the team in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport really care about the issue. Working together, I really think that we can bring some light into the dark cyber-streets and make a true difference.
Question put and agreed to.
That Siobhan Baillie, Mrs Maria Miller, Laura Trott, Dame Margaret Hodge, Caroline Nokes, Carla Lockhart, Andrew Griffith, Jeremy Wright, John Nicolson, Mr David Davis and Esther McVey present the Bill.
Siobhan Baillie accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March, and to be printed (Bill 202).