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Gov Confirm Measures to Tackle Anonymous UK Internet Trolls

Friday, Feb 25th, 2022 (12:01 am) - Score 1,440
Censorship and forbidden speech warning sign uk internet

The Government has today confirmed that they will add two new duties to the Online Safety Bill (OSB), which will act to crackdown on the anonymous online abuse that occurs on the largest social networks. The wider bill also tasks Ofcom with tackling “harmful” internet content through website bans, fines and other sanctions.

The vast majority of social networks used in the UK do not strictly require people to share any personal details about themselves. Users are often able to identify their accounts by a nickname, alias or other term not linked to a legal identity. This is broadly a good thing because most of us balk at the idea of sharing too much of our personal information with such networks, but we frequently still want to engage with other users on them.

However, some people also exploit this cloak of anonymity to spread abuse, with offenders typically having little to no fear of recrimination from either the platforms or law enforcement. Mercifully, the Government has recognised that banning anonymity online entirely, which isn’t likely to be realistic, would negatively affect those who have positive online experiences or use it for their personal safety (e.g. domestic abuse victims, activists living in authoritarian countries or young people exploring their sexuality).

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As such, the new duties are more focused upon giving end-users greater control over what they choose to see. The two additional duties will also only apply to so-called Category One sites, which are said to reflect “companies with the largest number of users and highest reach” (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit). In other words, smaller sites won’t need to worry about needing to meet a costly and potentially unworkable requirement.

The first duty will force big social media sites to give adults the ability to block people who have not verified their identity on a platform, while the second duty will require platforms to provide users with options to opt-out of seeing harmful content.

The Two New OSB Duties

First duty – user verification and tackling anonymous abuse

Category one companies with the largest number of users and highest reach – and thus posing the greatest risk – must offer ways for their users to verify their identities and control who can interact with them.

This could include giving users options to tick a box in their settings to receive direct messages and replies only from verified accounts. The onus will be on the platforms to decide which methods to use to fulfil this identity verification duty but they must give users the option to opt in or out.

When it comes to verifying identities, some platforms may choose to provide users with an option to verify their profile picture to ensure it is a true likeness. Or they could use two-factor authentication where a platform sends a prompt to a user’s mobile number for them to verify. Alternatively, verification could include people using a government-issued ID such as a passport to create or update an account.

The new duty aims to provide a better balance between empowering and protecting adults – particularly the vulnerable – while safeguarding freedom of expression online because it will not require any legal free speech to be removed. While this will not prevent anonymous trolls posting abusive content in the first place – providing it is legal and does not contravene the platform’s terms and conditions – it will stop victims being exposed to it and give them more control over their online experience.

Users who see abuse will be able to report it and the bill will significantly strengthen the reporting mechanisms companies have in place for inappropriate, bullying and harmful content, and ensure they have clear policies and performance metrics for tackling it.

Second duty – giving people greater choice over what they see on social media

There is said to be a growing list of toxic content and behaviour on social media which falls below the threshold of a criminal offence but which still causes significant harm. This includes racist abuse, the promotion of self-harm and eating disorders, and dangerous anti-vaccine disinformation. Much of this is already expressly forbidden in social networks’ terms and conditions but too often it is allowed to stay up and is actively promoted to people via algorithms.

Category one companies will now have to make tools available for their adult users to choose whether they want to be exposed to any legal but harmful content where it is tolerated on a platform. These tools could include new settings and functions which prevent users receiving recommendations about certain topics or place sensitivity screens over that content.

We should point out that the new duties are in addition to the OSB’s existing measures, which are designed to more effectively tackle both “illegal content” (e.g. child abuse, hate crimes, terrorism etc.) and “harmful content posted anonymously” (e.g. banning repeat offenders associated with abusive behaviour, preventing them from creating new accounts or limiting their functionality).

One potential caveat in all this, particularly the second duty above, is that it continues to depend upon the questionable assumption that social networks will be able to develop effective ways of distinguishing between different types of speech (i.e. identifying if it’s harmful or not).

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In some cases spotting harmful or even illegal speech is easy, but in other cases automated filtering often gets lost in a sea of complex context that it cannot understand and, by default, imposes moderation to help avoid accepting liability (e.g. confusing serious abuse with parody or confusing conspiracy theories with discussions of why certain theories are wrong).

Nadine Dorries MP, UK Digital Secretary, said:

“Tech firms have a responsibility to stop anonymous trolls polluting their platforms.

We have listened to calls for us to strengthen our new online safety laws and are announcing new measures to put greater power in the hands of social media users themselves.

People will now have more control over who can contact them and be able to stop the tidal wave of hate served up to them by rogue algorithms.”

We suspect that some people will still find a way to circumvent the first duty, so that they’re able to continue posting abuse but from supposedly “verified” accounts. However, much will no doubt depend upon what systems and approaches the social networks choose to adopt.

Ofcom will be expected to set out in guidance how companies can fulfil the new user verification duty and the proposed verification options. In developing this guidance, the regulator will be expected to ensure that the possible verification measures are accessible to vulnerable users and consult with the Information Commissioner (ICO), as well as vulnerable adult users and technical experts.

UPDATE 11:49am

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A comment has come in from the Open Rights Group (ORG).

Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, said:

“This proposal would lead to a two tier Internet, where people who suffer abuse and use anonymity to shield themselves are actively discriminated against. LGBTQ, abuse survivors and many others use anonymity to prevent their identities from being revealed and from suffering real world consequences. It is deeply disturbing that the people who this bill seeks to protect will have real protection of anonymity removed from them.

Unfortunately content does not come with a ‘legal but harmful’ label attached to it, so the idea that platforms can opt people out of such things is nonsense. What it will mean is people choosing whether algorithms block things that might be offensive, with the inevitable result that posts about ‘Scunthorpe’ or ‘garden hoes’ are removed in the name of safety.”

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Mark-Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
29 Responses
  1. Avatar photo D says:

    The Same Nadine Dorries who threatened to ‘nail Sunday Mirror reporter’s testicles to the floor using own front teeth’?

    https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/tory-mp-nadine-dorries-threatens-2845154

    Yeah the online trolls is clearly the Issue

  2. Avatar photo Libertarian says:

    Slippery slope for becoming like Australia/China and having cops banging on your door for posting a meme

    Governments nowadays are the biggest advertisers for VPNs and Bitcoin

    1. Avatar photo Gary says:

      This isn’t a slippery slope anymore, we’re over a cliff edge in terminal decline.

  3. Avatar photo Anthony Goodman says:

    Online trolls = Every conservative speaker. Antifa can literally plan terror attacks on these platforms and nobody bats an eyelid. But say there is not 100 different genders and expect the full force of the law onto you. Roll on Trumps Truth social I say.

    1. Avatar photo Sam G-L says:

      Sorry, what? Antifa attacks? I hope you’re being sarcastic. If you’re not, I think it’s a dire state of affairs what people believe.

    2. Avatar photo Flip says:

      @Sam G-L

      No he’s not being sarcastic, have you been living under a rock for the past few years.

  4. Avatar photo Against bullying Full stop says:

    It’s about dam time people hiding behind dam a keyboard putting people down. I am 100% behind this because there too many people that have to suffer with the hurtful things people say it’s like in a playground but there online bullying. People should think before they type someone may have mental health problems or have a learning disability and they maybe suicidal and getting constantly being bullied it takes a toll on you. I was bullied constantly as a kid from aged a 11 years old. Now am 39 I have mental health problems as a result I suffer from bipolar disorder. Even kids use there dam Smartphones to post there crappy fighting and bullying online. It’s those young adults and kids that are ruining the system for everyone else.

    1. Avatar photo Mike says:

      Unless your real name is “Against bullying Full stop”, aren’t you being a bit of a hypocrit?

  5. Avatar photo Friday says:

    Most of it is harmless fun. People on You Tube make more et from criticising others.
    But this will be the usual ill thought out plan by the government, that will be flawed and fail and probably cost the tax payer somehow.

    1. Avatar photo Buggerlugz says:

      Still I’m sure they are lots of opportunities for MP’s to set up social media consulting companies so they can hand themselves lucrative contracts.

    2. Avatar photo Friday says:

      Oh absolutely, plus the shares they will hold in others. Politicians only ever do things that personally benefit them.

  6. Avatar photo Optimist says:

    I don’t see how these rules can be enforced on services based outside the UK’s jurisdiction. Will the government cut the international cables connecting us with the rest of the world?

    1. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      I suspect the Government are partly relying on the threat of losing access to the mass market of casual UK internet users through ISP/mobile operator level website blocks (i.e. adapt or be blocked / fined etc.).

  7. Avatar photo Buggerlugz says:

    If its about stopping Russian bot farms then better late than never. They are quite literally everywhere, over every news comment on every website. Its a real shame it took Putin invading a sovereign nation for them to get off their backsides and do it though.

    1. Avatar photo BorrisBot says:

      I dont believe you.

    2. Avatar photo Me says:

      Hyperbole much? Don’t worry I’m more then sure the U.K. and US are doing exactly the same to Russia..

    3. Avatar photo Mike says:

      “Everyone I disagree with is a bot!”

    4. Avatar photo Russian bot says:

      Buggerlugz thinks anyone he doesn’t agree with is a Russian bot.

      LOL.

      Good luck in life buddy, you’re not gonna make it.

  8. Avatar photo Terry Troll says:

    Ha ha ha. You can’t stop a real troll.
    VPN and and fake online account. Use public wifi or your stupid neighbours broadband and I’m back in the game.
    Seriously though. All this is going to do is take up the Polices time when so called celebrities get offended online because they are woke entitled snowflakes.

    1. Avatar photo Lister says:

      Yeah, because it’s never good to be “alert to injustice in society, especially racism” (Oxford definition of Woke, says Google)? The opposite of woke is thus to be ignorant of injustice and a racist. I’ll stick on the side of people against racists.

    2. Avatar photo Flip says:

      @Lister

      I think the best definition of “woke” is mentally ill, identity politics obsessed, left-winger.

  9. Avatar photo PoliticalGenius says:

    The problem is the well is way way way deeper than these measures and comments hint at. There are whole departments in almost all governments dedicated to driving a specific narratives and attitudes online. This does nothing against those which are by FAR the most damaging and insidious threat – governments and affiliated parties.

    The UK and US governments are every bit as complicit as the Chinese and Russian governments in their mass manipulation and suppression tactics to drive their own narrative. Even the entire “Russia/China bad” “UK/US good” is complete horseshit. The US/UK for example had no hesitation in going into Iraq and Afghanistan when it suited them. That is not to condone the invasion of Ukraine in any way but if I were looking from the other side I’d be citing “the oppressors doth complain too much”

    Ultimately though, these controls, if I were being REALLY cynical and conspiratorial, are to silence government dissent and not to protect the citizen. The Conservatives are rapidly removing the right to protest, the right to challenge corruption and any other safeguards that are in place that threaten their ability to screw us over. Eventually we’ll be left without any ability to question their insanity without retribution and how are we then any different to Russia/China?

  10. Avatar photo Gavin says:

    The first section I think its a good compromise to allow people to verify themselves and then give them the ability to mass block unverified accounts, with maybe an exception option for those friends who resist verifying.

    The second section will be harder to implement as I think a lot of what is being seen on social media that falls in to those categories aren’t seen by the website so they won’t have put a tag/mark on that content which will signal to the filter to block it.

  11. Avatar photo Mark john says:

    People need to grow up cans learn to ignore things that random people online think or say about you 98% of sites already let you block people, they also need to grow a back bone and accept that if you express your opinions publicly and comparing online with the offline world is stupid as you can always just setup using that website and go outside some people my disagree and not everyone has to like you or be your friend. We live in a strange world now where people seem to think everyone must be nice to you and be your friend.

  12. Avatar photo Yvan Richard says:

    Just asking, how much proportion of LBGTQXZ in UK? We must stop dividing our society. ALL people are entitled to respect. ALL. The police has really nothing else to do other than social cyber-surveillance? Binge-watching ‘FLIX while eating Crap Food Burgers ordered online obviously does not reinforce mental strength. I have a secret for people lacking a bit of mental strength and complaining about everything they don’t like: cold shower at least three days a week (temperature constraint), high intensity intermittent/strength training (physical constraint), intermittent fasting (metabolic constraint), and some vitamins (in our “democratic” society, I have to hide/censor myself on those, so you will have to discover by yourself) as mood booster. You will notice that suddenly we stop complaining all the time! It works like magic! Really! It’s a must try! You will have the mental strength to simply ignore everything you don’t like, be either a comment, a post or a tweet! Imprisoning someone just because that person said something you don’t like/want to hear is the beginning of a much sinister society.

    Knife crime continues to surge and ALL women (not only the LGTBZXQ) not able to walk alone without being harassed or hurt during the night. Remember. Would anyone let her female partner walk alone at 11 p.m. in a city without being worried? Why are ALL women not allowed to protect themselves with the right (non-lethal, of course) equipment to TEMPORARILY freeze an aggressor? Why specifically this kind of equipment is forbidden?

  13. Avatar photo Anon says:

    Say goodbye to your freedoms. This is another step in a large sequence taken to remove out rights.

    This will usher in the Chinese social scoring system and nobody will be able to say anything that goes against the narrative.

    1. Avatar photo Paul says:

      I actually welcome the China Social Point Scoring system here in the UK.

      We could easily exclude all those who don’t pay taxes and don’t abide by laws.

      We can make life hell for those who cause problems for others like anti-social behaviour.

      I really don’t see the problem. The only objectors are cheats and ones causing the misery.

      Our existing system is completely broken so I welcome this with open arms.

    2. Avatar photo Gerarda says:

      Paul apparently doesn’t see a problem in allowing the Government to decide what is the truth, what is offensive or what is harmful. I suggest he is rather naive if he thinks those powers will be used for the good of society rather than what is good for the Government.

    3. Avatar photo Truthsayer says:

      The problem with this is exactly sheep like Paul who don’t think the law exists and want the government to do things it is not supposed to do

      This is why “govern me harder daddy” meme exists and why normal people had to put up with china like authoritarian measures that don’t do anything they say they do, instead they caused poverty, inflation and actual health damage

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