A Government minister has warned tech companies that they will need to do far more to limit internet users’ ability to post hateful messages anonymously, or risk falling foul of the law.
Minister for Digital and Culture Caroline Dinenage MP was speaking at a Westminster Hall debate this week, just weeks after the Government responded to a national consultation around online harms.
Earlier in the debate Labour’s Chi Onwurah referenced the online antisemitic abuse received by veteran Barking MP Dame Margaret Hodge, after she criticised former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Onwurah highlighted how Hodge had been the subject of more than 90,000 posts, saying: “Many were antisemitic, misogynistic and ageist, and many were posted by people hidden behind anonymous screens”.
She added: “We know from several colleagues, from the valuable testimony of groups such as the Antisemitism Policy Trust, and from painful personal experience that online anonymity too often accompanies online abuse.”
Dinenage referenced a report from the Community Security Trust (CST) that highlighted how online antisemitic abuse hit record levels last year.
“Much of that abuse was carried out anonymously,” said the minister. “That behaviour is absolutely unacceptable. We are clear… that being anonymous online does not give anyone the right to abuse others.”
Dinenage said the security agencies had ways of unveiled an anonymous user’s identity if digital hate speech becomes unlawful, adding that the Government was “taking steps through the online harms regulatory framework”.
Recognising that anonymity was sometimes necessary, such as in whistleblowing cases, journalism, and reports of domestic violence, she said: “Our starting point… is that companies must take action against harmful anonymous abuse online”.
Last month the Government outlined “new expectations on companies to keep their users safe online” with digital businesses given “robust rules”, with the Law Commission due to report on the criminal law in this area in the coming months.
“Anonymity is a key factor in online abuse and it is encouraging that MPs are addressing this issue,” said a CST spokesman, following the debate.
“We have proposed that social media companies that allow anonymity on their platforms should be compelled by law to provide the identity of offenders who post illegal or defamatory material, and if they can’t or won’t, then the companies themselves should be held liable.
“This solution would balance the importance of free speech with the need to provide redress for people suffering from antisemitic abuse and threats online.”
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