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Beware the unintended consequences of deleting online anonymity

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AS A RULE, if you find yourself walking down a road and see a sign indicating that Hell is only a few miles away then it’s a good idea to look down under your feet and note that you’re probably standing on paving made of good intentions.

It might be trite to point out but history is replete with examples of people aiming to get somewhere positive but, in doing so, bringing down a raft of negative consequences. One glance at the part of the internet in which alternative therapies and non-empirical ‘medicine’ live, to take just one example, will attest to this. For every advocate of chiropractic treatments, homeopathy, crystal healing, or reiki you find, you’ll also discover someone who takes their nonsense on board and will go on to eschew real medicine that could actually help them. Further examples of this principle in action are, sadly, not hard at all to find.

It is with this in mind that we consider the case of glamour model, celebrity, and author Katie Price, the erstwhile Jordan, who has recently submitted a petition to Parliament calling for verified photo ID to be required when setting up an account on social media in an effort to combat online abuse and trolling. Her petition calls on lawmakers to:

Make it a legal requirement when opening a new social media account, to provide a verified form of ID. Where the account belongs to a person under the age of 18 verify the account with the ID of a parent/guardian, to prevent anonymised harmful activity, providing traceability if an offence occurs.

Ms Price then goes on to use the example of the horrific abuse she and her disabled son Harvey have suffered at the hands of heinous keyboard delinquents by way of a stirring and heartfelt argument:

My son Harvey is disabled. He is also the kind and gentle son of a person regularly in the public eye. The Online Harms Bill doesn’t go far enough in making online abuse a specific criminal offence and doing what ‘Harvey’s Law’ intended. To make the law work needs the removal of anonymity to ensure that users cannot cause harm by using online platforms to abuse others. Where an offence has taken place they ought to be easily identified and reported to the police and punished. We have experienced the worst kind of abuse towards my disabled son and want to make sure that no one can hide behind their crime.

Who could fail to be touched by such a sincere, decent, and highly personal account of hurt, pain, and trauma? Certainly not I! Having seen only a smattering of the vile, disgusting, and despicable comments made towards a young man with a severe disability and his doting mother, I feel so incredibly sorry for them as a family. No amount of being in the public eye or level of celebrity, or proximity to them, means that anybody ought to be subject to the kind of comments, which will not receive the oxygen of being repeated here, they have received.

Suffice it to say, those who have made them should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves and ought to reconsider their values and character as a result. They are not good people and the Prices are to be praised for their dignity in response to their hate.

The motive behind Ms Price’s petition is, from where I sit, an entirely good-natured one. Without second-guessing her intent and by taking her priorities in good faith, it’s difficult to conclude otherwise. For all intents and purposes, she is a mother who is attempting to take care of her son under circumstances that most of us would find incomprehensible; it is difficult to imagine a more moral objective.

It is for that reason that I say that Ms Price is responsible only for the good intentions paving the road she intends to put us on and should assume no intentional responsibility for its destination – but that does not change that its terminus may well be Hell… at least for some of society’s most overlooked individuals. The tragic irony of this will, alas, be lost on nobody who considers it.

The result of Ms Price’s petition would be to create a social media landscape in which nobody could operate anonymously and would ensure that government, and by extension the public, would have an encyclopaedic knowledge of who is running which account, what they are saying, and would be able to match an account to an individual in the event of something abusive, aggressive, or insulting being said to or about any other person or group. Ms Price’s intentions are so pure as to have attracted the support of Anna Kennedy OBE, mental health charity Mencap, and Andrew Griffiths MP… among many, many others of unimpeachable character and credibility. At time of writing, her petition has over 140,000 signatures, well over the threshold required for Parliament to sit up and take notice.

I’m sure there are some reading this who would ask, seemingly quite rightly, “So what? Surely that’s for the best? People should be held account for everything they say! That is surely the consequences element of the right to freedom of expression?” Well, in an ideal world, perhaps, but what if it is not quite as simple as that? As usual, the devil is very much in the detail.

While the argument is that Harvey’s Law, as it has come to be known, would “end the online anonymity that protects abusers”, what if being able to use the social engagement offered by these online spaces doesn’t just protect those who abuse but also serves to protect those whose very safety relies on going unidentified?

Allow me to demonstrate what I mean with a personal example – just one among, I’m sure, many. Some time ago, I noticed that #AnonPride was trending on Twitter and offered myself as a supportive “big brother” to anyone who was taking part. Essentially, #AnonPride offered LGBTQ+ people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t celebrate Pride publicly, most likely due to being closeted because of their personal situation, a chance to take part from behind the safety and security of an anonymous Twitter profile. My Tweet received, at last look, 301 retweets, 3,534 likes, and I received many lovely, heart-warming, and humbling messages of thanks and gratitude. I, with my modest Twitter account, never expected anything like that and it remains my favourite online engagement to this day. This could never have happened if those individuals had been forced to identify themselves and risk being outed.

The LGBTQ+ community is a major beneficiary of internet anonymity, especially for its younger and therefore intrinsically more vulnerable members (making the provision in Ms Price’s petition for under 18s to require parental consent and therefore knowledge even more potentially damaging) but they are by no means the only example of internet anonymity being vital for survival or achieving positive ends. A cursory sweep of the internet will find examples of sexual abuse survivors, survivors of human trafficking, stories being broken against the will of public figures, whistleblowers, and many, many others who would have been unable to do what they have do without the knowledge that they can do so without being identified.

What we have here is a very careful balancing act and it is essential that we get it right. On one hand, we have the abusers and the trolls, who Stephen Fry correctly describes as having been unleashed by the Pandora’s Box of the internet, but on the other hand we have those who need to go about their valuable business without having their faces, names, and other details linked to their accounts. It is, to put it at its mildest, tricky.

Something must be done to beat the trolls and spouters of bilge and bile but we must be careful not to remove that vital lifeline from those who need it. It’s bad form to close a column like this by saying that I don’t know what the answer is but it is always helpful to say what the answer is not and I’m sure that the answer is not a blanket rule requiring ID for a social media account. The benefits of doing so are there, as are the good intentions, but the potential blowback is severe, and the road those good intentions pave could take some of our most vulnerable and exposed individuals straight to a Hell that being anonymous could have spared them from.

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Alan Grant, our resident ThinkMovies critic, can be found here with a new review every Thursday evening when the Cinemas are again open. @alangrantuk #thinkmovies  E-mail: alangrantcontact@gmail.com 

Photo by Jose Carlos Cerdeno from Adobe Stock

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