Insights Government to add two new duties to Online Safety Bill to strengthen law against anonymous online abuse

The Government recognises that people in the public eye, including England’s Euro 2020 footballers, have suffered horrendous racist abuse over the past year. Female politicians have received abhorrent death and rape threats, and there is repeated evidence of ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ people being subject to coordinated harassment and trolling.

Accordingly, the Government is introducing two new duties on tech firms, particularly social media platforms, in its Online Safety Bill. The first duty will force the largest and most popular social media sites to give adults the ability to block people who have not verified their identity on a platform. A second duty will require platforms to provide users with options to opt out of seeing harmful content. The aim of the new duties is to limit the ability of anonymous trolls to target people on the biggest social media platforms.

First duty – user verification and tackling anonymous abuse

The draft Online Safety Bill already places requirements on in-scope companies to tackle harmful content posted anonymously on their platforms and manage the risks around the use of anonymous profiles.

Under the new duty, “category one” companies with the largest number of users and highest reach 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.

The Government suggests that, 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. Alternatively, they could use two-factor authentication where a platform sends a prompt to a user’s mobile number for them to verify. Additionally, verification could include people using a government-issued ID such as a passport to create or update an account.

The Government recognises that banning anonymity online entirely would negatively affect those who have positive online experiences or use it for their personal safety, such as domestic abuse victims, activists living in authoritarian countries or young people exploring their sexuality. The aim of the new duty is 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 strengthens the reporting mechanisms companies have in place for inappropriate, bullying and harmful content, and ensures they have clear policies and performance metrics for tackling it.

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

The draft Bill already forces in-scope companies to remove illegal content, such as child sexual abuse imagery, the promotion of suicide, hate crimes and incitement to terrorism. However, the Government recognises that there is 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, including racist abuse, the promotion of self-harm and eating disorders, and dangerous anti-vaccine disinformation.

Under the new second duty, “category one” companies will 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. To read the Government’s announcement in full, click here.