For people under the impression that the UK takes its civil liberties seriously, the past two years’ parliamentary debates around social media make for a frightening read. A recent spate of comments, proposals and bills by British MPs indicate that a less laissez-faire attitude towards online methods of communication is beginning to dominate the debate. This was perhaps best illustrated in September of this year, when Labour MP Lucy Powell introduced her Online Forums Bill, which received support from a large number of MPs from across the political spectrum. If enacted, this would force Facebook to release information about private groups—and prevent the site from creating new ones—which she claimed were being used to target MPs for abuse.
Constitution Minister Chloe Smith has proposed measures to bar online trolls from public office, claiming that intimidation prevents “talented people” from standing for election. A public consultation to consider these proposals is now underway. Those skeptical of the proposed changes will be hoping to have some questions answered. Who exactly counts as a troll? Credible threats of violence obviously cross the line—and that is reflected in UK law—but what else counts as trolling? Is telling an MP to fuck off a few times on Twitter trolling? Will there be a time limit on trolling statutes, so teenagers aren’t punished indefinitely for the stupidity of youth?
Troll status would have to be linked to a criminal conviction of some sort—whether tied to a new law or an existing one—to be intellectually and morally defensible. More questions remain, however: does it require a pattern of behavior? Or is one particularly nasty tweet enough? Can threats ever be jokes? If so, how do we distinguish between jokes, sarcasm and genuine threats of violence? Will the law reflect these grey areas? All of these proposals require a broad and stringent public debate, and at present, that is not happening. A public consultation that virtually nobody in the country is aware of (and in which even fewer take part) does not meet that high bar.
After receiving six hundred rape threats in one night, Labour MP Jess Phillips has said that people should be forced to prove their identities to those running Twitter and Facebook, even if they can remain anonymous to the general public. Conservative MP and Security Minister Ben Wallace agrees. He thinks digital IDs should be brought in, to curb mob rule and lawlessness online. But perhaps the most worrying proposal has come from Labour’s education spokesperson, Angela Rayner, who is calling for anonymous social media accounts to be banned entirely. “One of the first things they should do is stop anonymous accounts,” she said at a Labour party conference event in September. “Most people who send me abuse do so from anonymous accounts, and would not dream of doing it in their own name.”
The attitude Rayner—a senior Labour politician, often touted as a future Labour prime minister—demonstrates here is stunning in its lack of foresight, and displays a wild ignorance of the danger her proposals would pose to civil liberties. Banning internet anonymity would put in jeopardy digital whistleblowing and investigative journalism and give any future government (and powerful individuals and corporations) a public catalogue of anyone and everyone who insulted, criticized or embarrassed them (provided they’re British). The repercussions of that for our civil society and politics are far greater than the effects caused by tolerating a profoundly unpleasant minority of internet users. If these proposals had been announced in Russia or Zimbabwe, the British political class would have been united in their condemnation. But since our government and UK MPs have proposed this, we’ve heard no uproar. The hypocrisy is stomach churning.
In her disdain for online anonymity, Rayner misses the fact that many lawful individuals are prevented from talking about politics (or indulging in crude or niche types of humor) due to either being a member of the civil service (for whom being overtly political is banned) or the attitudes of current (or future) employers. The assumption is that online anonymity always precludes threatening or unlawful behavior—when it clearly doesn’t. This is another example of how politicians tend to place themselves at the center of the universe and try to legislate accordingly.
Rayner also claims that fellow MP Stephen Doughty was told by Facebook that “they had a higher bar for politicians” when he complained about the abuse and threats he had received over the course of the 2017 election campaign. “It is almost as if politicians should accept a certain amount of bullying and abuse online,” she said. But that is precisely what the majority of people expect. Politicians are inherently controversial figures—their decisions set the legal boundaries of our lives—and yet so many of them want laws that appear to take little account of that fact. This debate would make far more sense if we were talking specifically about threats of violence. But we’re not. MPs often invoke cases of personal insults (often aimed at their appearance as well as their politics). Legislating against this is frankly unacceptable—although UK law already takes a dim view of abusive comments, jokes, graffiti and gestures (see the 1986 Public Order Act).
Nobody can fully understand this strange instinct within British politics to control what everyone is doing online, without remembering the murder of MP Jo Cox, two years ago. One afternoon during the EU referendum campaign in 2016, Cox had just finished her weekly meeting with local constituents when she was approached and violently stabbed by a far-right extremist shouting “Britain First.” For a lot of people (especially many MPs), this marked a sea change in British politics, the moment when the poisonous cauldron of social media boiled over and took the life of a dedicated (and popular) public servant. The consensus on this appeared quickly and hardened just as fast: the internet was no longer an anything goes arena and action had to be taken to prevent a similar incident happening again.
Concerns, too, about the UK’s vulnerability to Russian trolls have only hastened the race to regulate people’s use of social media. Again, these instincts are (on the face of it) pro-democracy. Russian trolls are trying to destroy the foundational principles of our society, ergo preventing their activity (no matter how clumsy and authoritarian the method) is inherently a pro-democracy move—or so the thinking goes.
Many MPs are understandably terrified that they could be the next Jo Cox, and news from across the pond that prominent Democrat politicians (including Obama, the Clintons and Andrew Cuomo) were sent bombs won’t do anything to calm their fears. But the uneasy reality is that the overwhelming majority of online threats are not credible, and those planning to make an actual attempt at hurting someone are unlikely to declare those plans in advance. Threats can be used to scare, intimidate and control, yes—and that should worry all who care about a healthy and civil democracy—but in an age of VPNs and proxies, those determined to become anonymous will do precisely that. Adding an even more Orwellian bent to the internet will not stop the problem. British politicians should take note.