London Assembly calls for ban on anonymous social media accounts

The call to ban anonymous social media accounts follows the suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack, but a number of Assembly Members are opposing the decision on human rights grounds

The London Assembly is calling on the mayor to lobby the government for a ban on all anonymous social media accounts.

According to the Assembly’s motion, anonymous accounts “fuel people’s feeling of impunity, freeing them to be abusive online”.

The motion, which was prompted by the suicide of television and radio presenter Caroline Flack, was agreed with 10 votes in favour and 8 against.

“No one, whether a politician, a reality TV host, or an ordinary member of the public, deserves to receive multiple, anonymous hate-filled or angry social media posts and comments,” it said.

“Yet the current system of allowing anonymous accounts to be set up, that are hard or impossible to trace, allows many to act online in a totally unacceptable fashion.”

Central government already has plans to meet with social media giants including Facebook and Twitter, but now the London Assembly is asking the mayor to further lobby the government.

This includes pressuring government to set up high-level meetings with the tech firms without delay, and persuading them to ban all anonymous accounts as well as shut down pages that promote hate or suicide.

“In the absence of persuasion making any difference, [the government should] pass legislation to prevent anonymous, UK-based users from setting up social media accounts,” said the London Assembly.  

Léonie Cooper, Assembly Member (AM), a Labour Group member who proposed the motion, described social media as an invaluable means of connecting with others, but added that a “significant minority” continue to abuse the anonymity it can provide.

“This is why we are urging the mayor to use his influence and undertake a range of actions centred around pushing the government to pressure social media platforms to ban all anonymous accounts and any pages that promote hate or suicide,” she said.

“If these companies refuse to play ball, the government should then step into their ethical vacuum and legislate to stop anonymous users in the UK from setting up accounts.”

Criticisms of decision

However, during a debate of the motion, City Hall Greens assembly member Siân Berry said although certain places on the internet do facilitate hate and social media companies are “extremely slow” to react, pre-emptively banning anonymous accounts was not the right approach.

“There are aspects of the internet that are essential to freedom of speech, these aspects must be protected,” she said.

“I’m thinking about the young person wanting to find out and chat safely about sensitive issues, a domestic abuse survivor being free to have an online presence without fear of being found, the gay person living in a community that oppresses their sexuality, and dissidents and whistleblowers exposing malpractice and corruption – we can’t throw these things out as much as we agree with the sentiment of Assembly Member Cooper’s motion.”

Conservative AM Andrew Boff, who also voted against the motion, has taken to Twitter to criticise the decision.

“Labour are using a tragedy as an excuse to shut down ALL anonymous accounts. This will force whistleblowers and victims of harassment off the internet,” he said, adding that although the policy idea was “wrapped in a worthy sentiment”, it would ultimately be a threat to free speech.

In April 2019, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office published the Online harms whitepaper, which introduced the world’s first framework designed to hold internet companies accountable for the safety of their users, and set out intentions to give companies a statutory duty of care to protect their users from harm.

In an initial response to the paper given in February 2020, the government will give communications watchdog Ofcom clear responsibilities to protect users online, which will include paying due regard to safeguarding free speech, defending the role of the press, promoting tech innovation and ensuring businesses do not face disproportionate burdens.

A full consultation response to the white paper is expected sometime in Spring 2020.

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