Plans to curb online abuse from anonymous accounts to be raised in Parliament

All social media users should be legally guaranteed the option to verify their identity in a bid to curb online abuse, ministers have been told.

Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie praised the forthcoming Online Safety Bill but said she believes it contains a “gap” in its approach to abuse and the impact of anonymity.

Her proposed law would give people the chance to verify their accounts, while platforms would be required to offer options to limit or block interaction with unverified users.

Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie addresses the House of Commons (PA)
Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie addresses the House of Commons (PA)

Those wishing to remain anonymous would be allowed to use a pseudonym for their social media handle and choose whether they want to have their personal details verified or not.

Ms Baillie said she does not expect the plans to get rid of anonymous abuse but instead reduce it while giving greater control to social media users about who they interact with.

The MP for Stroud will present her proposed Social Media Platforms (Identity Verification) Bill to the Commons on Wednesday.

Supporters of her Bill include senior Tory MPs Jeremy Wright, Caroline Nokes and David Davis plus Labour former minister Dame Margaret Hodge.

The forthcoming Online Safety Bill is expected to force the biggest technology firms to abide by a duty of care to users, overseen by Ofcom as the new regulator for the sector.

Ms Baillie told the PA news agency: “The verification Bill we’ve come up with is giving people a choice to verify their accounts – a bit like our blue ticks – giving people the choice to follow and be followed by only verified accounts, and making it clear who is and isn’t verified. It’s pretty simple.

“Our view is that it’s going to reduce anonymous abuse – it won’t completely get rid of it – it gives control for social media users over what they are and aren’t seeing, and it stops the calls for banning anonymous accounts.

“So you could still be ‘Princess Ginger Cat’ but your details will be held, and it’s our view that, given the length of time it’s taking to identify people and prosecute them, that this would also speed up prosecutions and it’d be a deterrent for quite a few people if they know their details are held.”

Details of Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie’s proposed Private Member’s Bill (PA)
Details of Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie’s proposed Private Member’s Bill (PA)

Ms Baillie said it will not necessarily be social media companies that would hold the verification details, with third parties under consideration.

She added: “The usual arguments against tackling anonymous accounts are ‘freedom of speech’ arguments, which we’re all very aware of.

“My response to that is always there’s no greater challenge to freedom of speech than a rape threat. People are just not speaking freely online because it’s so horrendous and it’s such a Wild West.

“The second point is people say ‘What about the whistleblowers and people that want to be anonymous?’ – people exploring their identity or people exploring their sexuality, victims of domestic violence.

“My response to that is they could still be anonymous in terms of their Twitter handle but their details could be held, or if they wanted to go a step further and not have details held then they would still be able to do this and this approach.

“It keeps the ability for the good anonymity and gives people control over the bad.”

On the current verification approach, Ms Baillie said: “It’s basically only available for the rich and famous at the moment.

“That’s wrong because we know celebrities and footballers and Members of Parliament get a lot of abuse, but this is affecting every single person and people in my constituency.

“I’ve got a veteran who came to me about abuse, a social worker, young girls talking quite a lot about cyber-flashing – a lot of that comes from anonymous accounts.

“So this is everyday people, so to not allow them to have the same option as people in public-facing roles is wrong and it’s clear that the tech companies can do this.”

Ms Baillie said she is hopeful of making progress with ministers on her proposals, with further talks planned.

She added that the proposals could also help reduce disinformation online and would give social media companies a mechanism to adhere to the duty of care requirements contained in the Online Safety Bill.