LONDON — The U.K. government is considering limiting peoples anonymity online as part of a drive to clean up the internet — a change that could upend the social media landscape as we know it.
Digital Minister Margot James said the freedom to be anonymous has been abused in “such a substantial way, with such damaging effects,” referring to the volume of racism, anti-Semitism and bullying across the internet, that curbs are being considered as part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports online safety proposals due to be published later this year.
While James said she respects some of the arguments for anonymity, including for those seeking psychological help online, anonymity could not be allowed to dictate debate. There is clear evidence that the propensity to intimidate, bully and abuse is exacerbated by hidden identity, she said, though she emphasized a final decision has not yet been taken.
James said that while new legislation could not be rushed, it would be brought to parliament at the “earliest opportunity after Brexit,” following the publication of a white paper later this year.
A proposed code of practice, which could be underpinned by legislation, is likely to break down “what is and isnt acceptable online.” As well as looking at abuse and intimidation which would be illegal if it was offline, the government is also considering content which is “very detrimental but not necessarily illegal,” James said.
In its new laws the U.K. government will need to address who is liable for content and for taking it down. The European Unions e-Commerce Directive currently establishes liability for platforms only if they do not remove or disable access to information once it is flagged by users as potentially illegal.
“Some of the issues are very complex, they do revolve around liability which is a thorny issue and we dont want therefore to rush it, but we are mindful of the need for action,” James said.
She pointed out that recent developments, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerbergs admission to the U.S. Congress that Facebook has some liability for content on its site, are among a number of factors making liability laws in the U.S. and EU “out of date almost.”
Digital Secretary Matt Hancock has previously highlighted the opportunity for the U.K. to reform its liability laws once it is outside European Union directives.
However, a Brexit deal that “has at its heart a degree of regulatory alignment” could reduce the U.K.s ability to act outside EU directives, James said, though she is optimistic the U.K. can act regardless of the final Brexit deal given Germanys success in bringing forward new hate speech laws, and disquiet from other European countries.
She said she thinks Europe is making progress toward holding platforms liable for the content that appears on their sites.
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