Policy drawn up in response to a moral panic is rarely well thought through. The fever pitch debate at present about how to address online trolling and abuse is perhaps as noisy as it has ever been. The seeds were sown during the World Cup when England's players suffered racist abuse via social media in response to missed penalties during a penalty shootout. The row has reached a climax in Parliament as a result of the loss of one of its own, Sir David Amess MP, which has been linked, without, it has to be said, a great deal of evidence, to the "cesspit" that is our online discourse on social media.
The immediate call is for all online social media users to prove their identity to the platform before making public comments. It is hoped that this will put a stop to the abuse but at what cost? Opponents rightly point to the benefits of anonymity for certain marginalised or vulnerable groups such as LGBT+, young adults in cultures that may disapprove of certain things, such as alcohol, or those who would benefit from accessing good quality information on the risks of illegal drugs but would not do so if they thought they might be identified.
There is clearly growing momentum behind demands for everyone to prove who they are first before doing anything online. Fifty Conservative Members of Parliament wrote to the Secretary of State demanding this, a number which would more than overturn the government majority if opposition parties supported such a move.
Clean up the internet
However, a more likely outcome is a compromise whereby users can voluntarily identify themselves, earning a tick against their username, although not necessarily required to share their real name for day-to-day interactions. Others could then choose not to engage with unverified users in a move that it is hoped would nudge people towards more civil discussions. This approach has been proposed by a campaign called “Clean up the Internet” and is attracting cross-party support, including unexpectedly some notable libertarians, who perhaps fear a more extreme policy.
As with any such reform, there is a risk of unintended consequences. Systematically disclosing your online identity could potentially exacerbate platforms' ability to track your online activities, perhaps only for targeted advertising, but perhaps more sinisterly for totalitarian states to target dissidents.
One potential solution that avoids this pitfall is tokenised identity. An independent and regulated third-party provider verifies that a user is a real person, and where necessary, perhaps their age, but does not pass on any personally identifiable information (PII) to the platforms a user accesses. Instead, it simply confirms that they are a real person. While this is still open to abuse, it can be regulated. Indeed, the government is already working on a plan for a Digital Identity And Attributes Trust Framework that would licence identity providers and could be adapted for this purpose.
The digital age of consent
It is not just online abuse driving the need to prove who you are before you go online. European and domestic legislation is increasingly demanding that websites put in place additional protections for children and young people, whether that is to prevent access to age-restricted goods, content and services or to ensure that personal data is not processed illegally when they are too young to give permission for this without their parents' consent. GDPR creates the concept of a 'digital age of consent'. The Audio-Visual Media Services Directive requires video-sharing platforms to prevent kids from seeing adult content. And more generally, minors can't enter into binding contracts, so merely accepting a platform's terms and conditions may not always be reliable unless the platform has confirmed the user is an adult.
In the UK, we will soon feel the impact of the Age-Appropriate Design Code which recently came into force after a 12-month grace period, placing an obligation on platforms not to show inappropriate material to younger children, creating a need to know not only if a user is an adult but also their approximate age if they are a child.
As you will now have concluded, we are fast approaching, or may well have already reached, a tipping point when it is necessary to at least prove your age and probably your identity, at least to an independent, regulated third party, before you are able to do anything more than listen to a nursery rhyme online. For some, this is an outrageous affront to the right to complete freedom on the internet; for others, and quite probably the vast but silent majority of society, it is merely applying the norms of the real world that protect the physical and mental wellbeing of our children in an online context. Whatever your view, be prepared for change, whether as a consumer going online or as a service provider, keen to minimise any friction this will create for your customers.