Online Safety Bill and Anonymous Abuse Online – Challenges ahead of UK’s online safety


Disclaimer:This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

By the end of this week (Thursday 17th march) the government will have released the long-due Online Safety Bill, a legislation in progress to update the UK’s not-so-effective online safety regulations. The bill is largely seen as a “blueprint” of the conservative party to carry out their promise, “to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”.

However, ahead of Tory’s bold ambition lies the repeated cases of anonymous online abuse in Britain. The new bill must make a difference to the current cyber wilderness in the UK.

Anonymous abuse in the UK

The current Laissez-faire cyber regulation has given too much room to unregulated behaviours online, especially social media’s anonymity has indulged wide-scale anonymous abuse online. 

During the last couple of years, we have seen a disturbing number of incidents that have led to wide scale abuse targeted at specific groups of our society. The ease of anonymity online has revealed the lesser kind of humanity.

After losing out in penalty shootout in Euro 2020 final, English players were faced with waves of criticism from disappointed fans. Many of them soon spiraled into racist attacks and cyber abuse aimed at Black players.

Cyber abuse can sometimes turn into violence in offline reality, during the pandemic anti-Asian hate speech were hardly effectively regulated online, and it was not long after physical attacks fueled by this cyber hatred took place across the globe.

In the public echo chamber, attacks on politicians have not only brought individual harm onto politicians but also disturbed the democratic right for electorates to fairly assess their candidates. Because more often than not, anonymous abusers flood social media platforms with unchecked and exaggerated comments preventing voters from making informed decisions.

These three examples have revealed that anonymous abuse can take various forms, escalation into abusive behaviours on social media platforms, social media abusive leading to real life violence and abuse associated with politics.

There has been multiple research that reveals the deep systematic damage online abuse has been done to our society. Nationally speaking, between 40-60% of people in the UK have either seen or experienced online-abuse, the Oxford Internet Surveys (OxIS) finds. And in a statement from Refuge, the UK’s largest gender-based violence service, 36% of women suffered online-abuse and harassment, with this rising to 62% in 18–34-year-olds. This has been worsened during the pandemic, according to charity DitchtheLabel, anti-Asian hate speech rocketed by 1662% between 2019-2020.

The OSB and Online Anonymous Abuse

Given current reports and earlier drafts, the government’s approach is to urge the tech giants to utilise social media platform regulations to deter and stop online abuse. The government has identified two duties for the platforms. 

First, to implement user verification and tackling anonymous abuse. Second, giving people greater choice over what they see on social media. 

These two steps seek to work at two distinct levels. With the former deterring individuals from potentially abusive behaviours. Because some sort of verification can cancel out the feeling of unaccountability behind anonymous accounts. The latter decreases the proximity between individuals on social media platform, it makes sure that even if abusive behaviours take place, it does not have to reach the other end of the victims.

Future ahead

Odds of effectiveness

Many academics have argued that some level of identity verification and choice for content access can effectively decrease the extent of abusive behaviours online.

Professor Carissa Véliz from the Institute for Ethics in AI at Oxford University argues pseudonym-identity verification is effective in balancing traceability and freedom of speech. Which creates a level of deterrence to potential abusers on top of the current system. 

Furthermore, Dame Margaret Hodges explained that the increased control of content accessibility can better assign accountability to individual behaviours online. That they will be more considerate of the consequences of what they post and do.

For example, VuePay, a video sharing platform. It distinguished user access into various levels with different verification requirements. This correctly assigns various levels of traceability and accountability to each level of abusive risk, minimising the overall risk users are exposed to.

Public opinion

A YouGov survey found 78% of its response supportive of at least some level of online verification. And a poll conducted by the British Computer Society found 64% of industry experts welcoming identity verification. Political support is also seen in the cabinet as the Lord High Chancellor and the Home Secretary both suggested an end to anonymity in 2020.

Freedom of speech

In an honest review, the vision to address anonymous abuse is not perfect. The very idea of regulating the way which people can act in fear of potential harm has been criticised to violate the freedom of speech online. Many have argued that being abusive online is not right, however, this does not facilitate a valid reason to jeopardise people’s freedom of speech (via verifications and blocking). Let alone bills like the OSB which will give unchecked power to tech giants to decide on the ground rule for people to behave online.

There are two issues, however, with these belief.

First, we do not and have never live in an ideal society with perfect freedom of speech. There already have been many occasions where tech giants have arbitrarily gained the right to silence its users. the moment we step onto social media platforms, we are subject to their rules and liking of regulations. This is not to say the status quo is right, but the popular claim that bills like OSB will give tech giants underserved power is not correct. We cannot reject proposals of change in fear of something that’s already happening. In other words, proposed bills are at least equal to the status quo and considering its deterrence to anonymous abuse, likely to be an improvement of the status quo.

Secondly, the internet has brought individuals infinitely closer. We must consider that the fundamental values of absolute freedom of speech were developed in a very different world. This is not to reject or incite revolutions, but we must amend the ways in which we carry out these values. In a society with the proximity between individuals, cyber anonymous abuse is guaranteed to happen and so is its harm to individuals. Thus, we are not face with a choice of upholding the principle or not, but we are presented a tangible harm and the choices are to prevent it or not. Thus we cannot ignore the highly likely future harms that we may prevent via introducing more effective reforms.

By Yizhang Li,

2nd year PPE student at UCL

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