UK Considering Ban On Social Media Anonymity to Combat Online Abuse

Published · Oct 21, 2021

Home secretary Priti Patel is exploring a ban on social media anonymity. If this comes into effect, it will have major ramifications for the privacy of all users. Multiple MPs concerned about online abuse back up the ban.

The push for the ban follows the murder of MP Sir David Amess. The accused is currently under investigation. There is currently no evidence of any connection to known extremist groups. However, authorities suspect online material may have radicalized him.

It’s unclear how the ban would work. What is known is that social media companies would have to retain data on all users—data that can be used to verify their identity or in background checks and investigations.

On a related point, the UK government’s current draft of the Online Safety Bill would require companies like WhatsApp to break encryption should authorities request access to a user’s communications.

Undermining Anonymity

There are two broad concerns to consider.

The first is data retention.

Social media companies would have to retain personally identifiable information on all users if authorities require it.

It can’t simply be the information of offenders. The move is preemptive, and so companies will treat everyone as a potential offender. This effectively eliminates the right to be forgotten—something often invoked to remove data from social media and people search sites.

The second concern is the matter of encryption. Social media firms can’t only decrypt the data of suspects. They’d have to be able to decrypt any data at will. Law enforcement will be more effective with these measures in place. At the same time, the system will compromise everyone's privacy.

If pathways to people’s data exist, bad faith actors can pursue them as well. Moreover, depending on how the law is interpreted, services like VPNs could be banned too.

Lisa Nandy alluded to this when she warned that some users, like pro-democracy activists and whistleblowers, have a legitimate need for anonymity.

Ms. Patel says that restrictions of anonymity will be proportionate and balanced. Her promise is a “soft protection.” Social media's configuration protects anonymity at current. However, if the ban comes into effect, only the government’s word will safeguard it. This leaves many uncertain of their privacy's future.

Garan van Rensburg
Garan van Rensburg

Garan is a writer interested in how tech reshapes the environment, and how the environment reshapes tech. You'll usually find him inoculating against future shock and arguing with bots.