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Online Safety Bill updated to target anonymous accounts

two new duties will be added to the Bill in order to protect people from ‘anonymous trolls’ and potentially harmful content (Alamy/PA)
two new duties will be added to the Bill in order to protect people from ‘anonymous trolls’ and potentially harmful content (Alamy/PA)

Social media platforms will be legally required to give users the power to block unverified users and opt out of seeing legal but harmful content under new online safety laws, the Government has announced.

In an update to the Draft Online Safety Bill, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has said the two new duties will be added to the Bill in order to protect people from “anonymous trolls” and potentially harmful content.

Under the changes, the biggest social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, will be legally required to offer ways for users to verify their own identities and control who can interact with them, including being able to block anyone who has not verified their identity or anonymous accounts.

Similarly, the largest platforms will also be compelled to make tools available for their users which will allow them to choose whether or not they see certain content which falls below the threshold of a criminal offence but which still causes significant harm, such as racist abuse, the promotion of self-harm and eating disorders and anti-vaccine disinformation.

The Online Safety Bill is expected to come before Parliament in the coming months.

“Tech firms have a responsibility to stop anonymous trolls polluting their platforms,” Ms Dorries said.

“We have listened to calls for us to strengthen our new online safety laws and are announcing new measures to put greater power in the hands of social media users themselves.

“People will now have more control over who can contact them and be able to stop the tidal wave of hate served up to them by rogue algorithms.”

The Government said the onus would be on the platforms to decide on which methods to use to fulfil the identity verification duty, but they must give users the option to opt-in or out.

It said sites could ask users to verify their profile picture to ensure it is a true likeness, use two-factor authentication where a prompt is sent to a user’s mobile phone to verify them or require a government-issued ID in order to create an account.

The Government said it did not want to ban anonymity online entirely because that would negatively affect those who use it for personal safety, but wanted to strike a better balance between empowering and protecting people while still safeguarding freedom of speech.

A number of platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, already allow users to block accounts and limit if and when specific accounts or indeed anyone can comment on their posts or contact them directly.

However, this update would see the power of these tools strengthened and applied more broadly across the largest social media sites.

The changes have been welcomed by Damian Collins, chairman of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, the group of MPs and peers who have previously scrutinised the Bill.

“I welcome the announcement from the Government that they’ve adopted the recommendation of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, to empower users to choose if they see unverified content,” he said.

“Anonymous abuse has been the subject of many debates in Parliament, and the Government has found the right balance between protection and freedom of speech by focusing on user choice.”

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