British MP’s death intensifies calls for end to online anonymity

Note: This was originally published as the online newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Last Friday, David Amess, a 69-year-old British member of parliament, was stabbed to death while hosting an open house for his constituents at a church in Leigh-on-Sea, a town in southeastern England. A 25-year-old man was later arrested and charged with his murder. In the aftermath of the incident, a British politician asked for an amendment to the country’s Online Safety Bill—a proposed law that has been making its way through the British legislative process for several years—that he called “David’s Law,” which would bring an end to online anonymity by forcing users of social platforms and other services to reveal their real identities. These calls were surprising to some, since Amess’s death doesn’t appear to have anything to do with online anonymity, or even the internet (at least not yet). The man arrested, Ali Harbi Ali, is the London-born son of an advisor to the former prime minister of Somali and appears to have links to Islamic terrorism, according to a report from British police.

The fact that Amess’s murder has inflamed the debate about digital anonymity despite having no apparent connection to it is evidence of how charged the discussion about online safety has become in the UK, observers say. Mark Francois, a former defense minister and a close friend of the deceased MP, said he wanted to name an amendment to the Online Safety Bill after Amess because his former colleague had become “increasingly concerned” about what he called the “toxic environment” online, and the amount of abuse directed at British politicians, especially women. “If the social media companies don’t want to help us drain the Twitter swamp, then let’s compel them to do it by law,” Francois said on Monday, during a triibute to Amess in the House of Commons. “Let’s put, if I may be so presumptuous, David’s Law onto the statute book.” Francois said the chief executives of Facebook and Twitter should be called to appear before Britain’s parliament “if necessary kicking and screaming.”

Francois’s call for an end to anonymity seemed to get some traction with at least one of the main architects of the Online Safety Bill. Damian Collins, a British MP and chairman of a parliamentary committee looking at the law, said he believes there is a “strong case” for requiring Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to record the real identities of users, so that those who engage in abuse online could be identified. “People would then understand that if they post abusive material, they could be traced back, even if they posted under an assumed name,” he told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper. Calls for action around online civility and harassment gained traction earlier this year in the wake of racist abuse on Twitter and Instagram directed at several Black members of the British soccer team because of their performance during the Euro 2020 final.

A proposal to end anonymity is only the latest aspect of the Online Safety Bill to lead to controversy. The draft legislation, which is adapted from a document called the Online Harms White Paper that was produced after public hearings in 2019, would give Britain’s media regulator—the Office of Communications or Ofcom—the authority to come up with codes of practice for each of the harms defined in the legislation, including terrorist content, fraud, racist abuse, and child sexual exploitation. The new law, which the government claims will bring a “new age of accountability for tech and bring fairness and accountability to the online world,” requires online services to meet a “duty of care” when it comes to moderating content.

The attempt to define acceptable speech has drawn fire from digital-rights groups, who have called it “state-backed censorship and monitoring on a scale never seen before in a liberal democracy.” A number of media organizations and journalists have also raised concerns about the impact that the proposed bill could have on the practice of journalism, which often reports on potentially disturbing or harmful content such as terrorism or sexual abuse. The legislation has an exclusion for journalistic content, but it’s up to the creator of the content to convince the regulator it falls into that category. Some fear this reverse onus may lead the platforms to remove more content than they otherwise would, in case it is later found to be illegal. Others say the bill essentially entitles the government to decide what qualifies as journalism and what doesn’t, and therefore amounts to a government journalism-licensing program.

Whether the recent attention on anonymity goes anywhere remains to be seen. According to Politico Europe, “multiple figures familiar with internal discussions say that while acting against online anonymity is being considered, it’s by no means settled policy,” in part because British prime minister Boris Johnson got rid of the ministers in charge of the bill—the culture minister and the MP in charge of the online economy—in a recent cabinet shuffle. Also, Priti Patel, Johnson’s Home Secretary, seemed to be trying to strike a middle ground in recent comments, saying that any action taken to restrict online anonymity “has to be proportionate and it has to be balanced.” Politico reported that Patel told the BBC people often use online anonymity “for a range of pro-democracy movements, for example, and in a range of other cases” and therefore the government “can’t just apply a binary approach.”

Here’s more on online safety legislation:

No cure: In the Independent, Ellen Judson—a senior researcher at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media—and Joe Mulhall, head of research at a group called HOPE Not Hate, write that removing anonymity likely wouldn’t have much effect on internet abuse. Seeing anonymity as the source of the problem “is a red herring,” the authors argue. “It’s likely that restricting anonymity would not significantly increase our ability to tackle online abuse. While it no doubt emboldens some to act in worse ways, huge amounts of the hate and abuse online is done by named people, suggesting this is an issue of ideology and behaviour, not just accountability.”

Copycat: Britain isn’t the only country working on something to do with online harms: the government of Canada has said it plans to introduce legislation that would force digital platforms to meet a “duty of care” when it comes to protecting users from a variety of illegal or disturbing content, after public consultations similar to those hosted by the British government. Public policy groups and supporters of free expression say that these requirements for social media platforms “to proactively monitor and take down content amount to censorship, and raise worries about privacy.”

Threats: Dominic Raab, Britain’s Justice Secretary, disclosed for the first time earlier this week that he has been the recipient of at least three threats on his life and health over the past two years, and that as a result he is very interested in proposals to limit anonymity or require users of platforms to register their real identities. He told the Telegraph he doesn’t want to send a message to tyrants that they could expose campaigners who needed anonymity, but added that “on balance, I think there is a case for really looking very carefully at this. I don’t see why people should be able to abuse the position on social media from a veil of anonymity.”

Other notable stories:

A recent cyberattack against Sinclair Broadcast Group has been linked to Evil Corp., one of the most notorious Russian cybergangs, according to a Bloomberg report based on interviews with two people familiar with the attack. “The Sinclair hackers used malware called Macaw, a variant of ransomware known as WastedLocker,” Bloomberg reported. Both Macaw and WastedLocker were created by Evil Corp., according to the two people. Evil Corp. was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in 2019. The attack reportedly took down Sinclair’s internal computer network, including email services, phone services, and the broadcasting systems of local stations.

The Verge says Facebook is planning to change the name of the company to something that conveys its new interest in building what some―including Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook―call “the metaverse,” a virtual 3D representation of reality. The change is expected to come next week, the site reports, quoting an anonymous source.
“The rebrand would likely position the blue Facebook app as one of many products under a parent company overseeing groups like Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and more.” Google did something similar in 2015, creating a new corporate parent organization called Alphabet.

Variety magazine has partnered with Twitter to create a broadcast ratings chart that ranks the most tweeted-about TV shows across both traditional networks and streaming services, the two announced at the Advertising Week conference in New York. The three trending charts will track the top ten programs that are being discussed on Twitter, as well as analyzing the day-to-day movement of the top three shows.

Agence France-Presse has launched a five-part podcast called The Poisoning, which the news service says “charts a historic crackdown in Russia, with the poisoning and jailing of Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, at the core of the narrative.” To produce the podcast, four AFP journalists―Jonathan Brown and Andrea Palasciano in Moscow, and Sarah-Lou Lepers and Antoine Boyer in Paris―traveled across Russia, as well as three other countries. The first four episodes were broadcast starting on September 16, just before parliamentary elections were held in Russia.

Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who recently testified before Congress about how the company ignored data from its own researchers on potential harm caused by its services, has received some powerful support behind the scenes. According to a report from Politico, Haugen is being financially supported by Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire who founded eBay. “Omidyar’s financial support, which was previously unreported, has provided a boost to Frances Haugen and the public relations operation that’s helping her take on one of the world’s most powerful companies. This gives her an edge that many corporate whistleblowers lack.”

American journalists look less and less like the country they cover in terms of race, class, and background, Joshua Benton writes at Nieman Journalism Lab, and therefore “we need to expand the pool of people who can enter the industry.” Benton says by making traditional routes into the industry so difficult, and expensive, “journalism loses out on a lot of talented people―people who would be great reporters or editors. And more importantly, those talented people look a lot more like America than the news business does―meaning they wouldn’t just tell more stories, they tell differentstories.

Lauren Harris writes for CJR about the challenges facing small-town newspapers, and interviews Brian Larsen, the editor of Minnesota’s Cook County News-Herald; Jeremy Gulban, the chief executive of CherryRoad Media, which acquired the newspaper in 2020; and Damian Radcliffe, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon and a felllow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, who recently published a report on the state of small-market newspapers. “The breadth of the local newspaper landscape, and the range of experiences within it, are both an opportunity―and a challenge―for anyone interested in helping to preserve, strengthen, and enhance local journalism in 2021 and beyond,” Radcliffe wrote.

Gawker reports that Thomas Chatterton Williams, a columnist for Harper’s magazine, is leaving after the next issue and is in talks with Atlantic magazine about a potential role. He was responsible for organizing the so-called Harper’s Letter, a statement signed by 153 writers and academics, which criticized what it referred to as the “stifling atmosphere” of Western discourse. The signatories claimed public debate was defined by an “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

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