UK would ‘look like China’ under Priti Patel internet anonymity crackdown – expert warning
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Conservatives have responded to the death of their colleague Sir David Amess by proposing harsh new curbs for online harm. Proposals also backed by Labour would crack down on online anonymity by modifying the already proposed Online Harms Bill of 2019. In action, it would work to expose would-be extremists before they can carry out attacks, but experts have identified several potential issues with the policy.
They have raised concerns that invasive Government actions would change the internet landscape for the worst and added pre-existing policies have already caused harm to minority communities.
The home secretary’s proposals have precedent in other countries, namely China.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a stranglehold on society via sweeping controls that employ censorship and curb freedom of expression.
Residents must navigate the “Great Firewall of China” that blocks sites like YouTube and Google while adhering to strict identification requirements.
Speaking to Express.co.uk, Paul Bischoff, security and privacy advocate at Comparitech.com, said the Home Secretary would have to mirror some of these features to succeed with her plans in the UK.
He said: “Priti Patel’s plan if it were to succeed, might look something like China’s current real-name registration system.
“Under that system, most social networks require users to register with a phone number.
“In turn, getting a phone number requires some sort of government-issued ID.”
Mr Bischoff said Ms Patel could conceivably launch such as system in the UK, but not without a fight.
Ultimately, he added, she would need to introduce policies that would have a “chilling effect” on free expression in the UK.
He said: “First off, the UK would have to force all the social networks, most of which are based in the USA, to adopt real-name registration standards.
“It would also have to account for alternative social networks that don’t comply and workarounds such as VPNs that spoof the user’s location.
“Enforcement, therefore, wouldn’t only require removing anonymity, it would also require a high degree of internet censorship similar to China.
“Removing online anonymity violates individual privacy and has a chilling effect on free expression.
“I don’t think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and I’m not convinced that removing online anonymity would have resulted in a different outcome for David Amess.”
“The UK already has laws against libel, slander, and incitement of violence.”
“It should enforce those before enacting ham-fisted laws like this one.”
Other experts don’t believe that banning online anonymity would accomplish the proposed goal.
Dr Zoetanya Sujon, author of The Social Media Age and Programme Director in Communications and Media, London College of Communication, UAL, said online harassment has more than one root cause.
She said it doesn’t happen “just because of anonymity”, adding it overlooks moderation issues.
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And some existing policies have had negative impacts on people using social media.
Dr Sujon said: “Most social media platforms have flawed content moderation policies, as can be seen in how some may show graphic depictions of violence against women but not breastfeeding.
“Considering that these policies are reactive, often only to content flagged by other users or keyword algorithms, it is difficult to see why having real names would change the problem of enforcement against violent and abusive language and behaviour.
“For example, Facebook already has a real name policy which has been hugely problematic for those in the LGBTQIA+ community, especially drag and queer performers.”
Dr Sujon added extremism and online anonymity are two unrelated concepts that require bespoke solutions.
She said: “While it is true that online anonymity has been a factor in the ‘Gamergate’ mob harassment experienced by female gamers such as Zoe Quinn and feminist critics such as Anita Sarkeesian, it does not enable such behaviour.
“Extremism and online anonymity are ultimately different issues with different causes.
“Removing online anonymity may appear an easy solution but does not resolve the root problems of systemic sexism, racism, and bigotry, nor does it address problems of inadequate moderation – which on most social media platforms has yet to truly prioritise harm reduction to women and minoritised populations.”
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