by Amy Jones
Monday, 18
October 2021
Explainer
17:18

Why the Internet needs anons

The tragic murder of an MP should not be used to curtail civil liberties
by Amy Jones
A David Amess memorial in Parliament Square. Credit: Getty

The horrific murder of sitting MP Sir David Amess on Friday has united the country in shock. Much like Jo Cox’s murder 5 years ago, it has also raised fundamental questions about the tension between the public’s right to have access to democratically elected politicians, versus the right of MPs to be safe while working in an increasingly fractious political landscape.

Rather surprisingly though, Priti Patel focused on an entirely different concern when discussing the terrible events this weekend — that of online anonymity. According to the Home Secretary, social media users could face a ban on anonymous accounts as a means to prevent radicalisation on line. To most people, this would seem like a non-sequitur; while the investigation is still in its preliminary stages, reports suggest that Ali Harbi Ali was known to the authorities, and had already been referred to Prevent, a counterterrorism scheme, following concerns regarding his behaviour.

It is hard to see how removing online anonymity would have made any difference to Mr Ali’s case. Even the argument that online anonymity encourages hate isn’t quite true. Facebook, which introduced a “Real Name” policy in 2014, remains a hotbed for abuse, with one report describing it as being responsible for 94% of 69 million child sex abuse images. Another survey found that 39% of women reported were harassed on the platform. It seems banning anonymity has done almost nothing to make Facebook a better, safer place.

There are also many reasons why a user may need to be anonymous. Many employers operate strict social media codes, which would make it impossible for employees to openly share any political views in public. Whistleblowers very often cannot speak out under their real name for fear of identification and reprisals.

So who does a “real name” policy most affect? The vulnerable. Online anonymity allows vulnerable and marginalised people to participate online, and to find support from others. Groups such as LGBT+, as well as victims of domestic violence and sexual assault depend upon anonymity to keep them safe. This is more important than ever considering that rates of stalking and cyberstalking increased significantly during lockdown, with some charities reporting a 40% rise in the number of victims. It is now estimated that 1.5 million people in England and Wales are victims of stalking every year, and for many of them, online anonymity may well be their only safety net.

Even ideas to try and mitigate these issues can be problematic. For instance, social media platforms requiring users to give their ID for it to be stored on a database and not displayed to other users has major privacy issues. A database of identities would be invaluable to hackers, which, given the ever-growing number of social media data breaches, makes it doubtful that personal details would ever be truly safe.

By all means, we should have a discussion about security and politicians. But removing the right to anonymity for innocent, vulnerable people is a grim response that uses a tragedy as a smokescreen for stripping away basic civil liberties. It is important that these terrible events are not weaponised as justification for policies which, at best, would have done nothing to prevent this murder, and at worse, will hurt many at-risk people.

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Peter LR
Peter LR
11 months ago

Douglas Murray (we miss you on UnHerd) has written in the Spectator that whenever an atrocity is committed under the ideology of Islamism, the conversation is deliberately distracted away from that subject on to something else. In this case online anonymity. All other heinous acts are analysed looking at the perpetrator or their ideology.
I would not engage without anonymity as I have a unique name and so couldn’t use anecdotes as those involved could be identified and we could be doxxed. The US has 1st Amendment protection for anonymity.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter LR

I agree that to ban anonymous posts is an entirely irrelevant response to Sir David’s murder. I used to and occasionally still post pseudonymsly on a number of Financial websites that I would be unwilling to post if I was easily identifiable, whereas I am relaxed using my real name here because I am now retired and consider I am not likely to be posting anything (however offensive to some) that is actually illegal.
Anonymous exchanges are essential to free expression where you are potentially at the mercy of arbitrary attack (for thoughts that are perfectly legal to express) by your employer or others who potentially have power over you.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jeremy Bray
Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
11 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

I agree up to a point but I do feel a lot of the very nasty, libellous and threatening posts or tweets , comments and so on happen because the person is anonymous and wouldn’t if they weren’t. There is also the problem of managed accounts by various organisations and state sponsored groups who pretend to be ordinary people. I think for some of these cases people take legal action and then, as in most court cases involving adults outside the various categories of serious sexual crimes, those accused or accusing cannot remain anonymous.
Most cases on social media don’t get taken to court but I do think for persistent and egregious cases on abusive trolling there ought to be the sanction of the account holder being named.

I agree completely about the importance of it for whistle blowers and indeed the vast majority of ordinary people.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
11 months ago

Non-sequitors abound.
Simply by using the internet as a source I can discover the views of the suspect’s father on Israel/Palestine. The language is measured and content proportionately minor compared to his passionate and informative tweets on Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia.
I can read an article where Sir David is described as a “true friend of Israel”. I can also learn that he was the co-chair of the British Committee for Iran Freedom (BCFIF), and a frequent speaker at the rallies of the Iranian Resistance.
If I watch the BBC I am informed about his passion for the battle against Climate change.
Tobias Ellwood was doing the rounds demanding MPs to end face-to-face meetings with public. Alright he said “pause”, but who will then risk pressing the “play” button? Harriet Harman was wheeled out but I lost concentration momentarily (sorry). Brendan Cox pops up.
In Unherd’s wonderful Essex Man article I am told the killing “appeared random” when compared to the awful murder of Jo Cox.
Then there’s Priti Patel who seems determined to link all this to end online anonymity. There will be a report on this terrible incident, so I can hazard a guess as to what the recommendation for Government action will be.
RIP Sir David, and condolences to his family. He died maintaining a link with constituents and felt free to speak out on a number of issues about which he felt passionate about. A fitting tribute would be to ensure all that continues into the future.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago

“social media users could face a ban on anonymous accounts as a means to prevent radicalisation on line.”

This is sheer Fascism/Communism. What next? Social Credit Scores? ‘Thought Crime’? Enforcing all identities to be verified is complete horror – everything in your life catalogued and on display, for all your life, and then to make your children guilty by relation. Never again could one express a view which is unpopular. This is BIG BROTHER, it is 1984, it is Stal in and Pol Pot and Mao and Hit *er, and The Shah’s Savak secret Police, it is terror, intimidation, it is death squads, it is being a complete subject slave to the Powers that be – it is ending of all dissent. Gulags, Political Prisons, Concentration Camps…

Once done it will never be undone. It is the end of humanity, and the beginning of ‘The Hive’.

Preti Patel is a monster.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

OK, hyperbole – but not really

Have you read many old books where the Secret Police are a large factor? From all the Russian writers going back centuries, and the French very much as well, and really, any old books where politics or war are involved. They are objects of complete terror.

The Police were secret because the people knew to never say openly, anything which was not approved. No one openly wrote their thoughts to publicly post but for a few fearless Pamphleteers – any subversive talk was to known people, conspirators, friends, family, and the Secret Police would try to get their hands on such treason, and then off to the Gulags or guillotine with the guilty.

Under Both Sta lin and Mao every work place, every apartment building had a person whose job was to eavesdrop and report on any suspicious talk. Millions went to their death from these spies – in fact a very great many innocent did as well because the spies had quotas – so often had to invent a treason less they be punished for not trying hard enough!

That is history going back to the Sumerians and Persians – the Romans had a great many of these internal spies, secret as there was no open electronic media and recording and algorithms…

Now we do not need secret spies if anonymity is done away with – because sedition is no longer whispers in taverns, talk over tables and dark rooms – it is on line and on phones, all recorded for ever, all data mined by a hundred organization’s web crawlers.

The ultimate horror mankind faces is when everything ever uttered and written is now catalogued, and one is totally known and exposed, and thus every wrong thought will be held against you for ever. Anonymity is our only defense, and Patel wishes to take that. That is a Crime Against Humanity.

Mark Polden
Mark Polden
11 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Your view, but you are not forced to participate. It is not a right but a commercial service where you are the product

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago
Reply to  Mark Polden

True, but the situation is untenable even for people who only post politically correct comments online. Views that are considered noble today may be deemed wholly unacceptable in a future setting. Under such a system no-one is safe; we are already seeing evidence of this right now where competent people are being fired for things they said years ago.
“Make an honest man write four sentences, and I have enough rope to hang him.” – Cardinal Richelieu.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
10 months ago
Reply to  Mark Polden

That is a pretty weak argument! A bit like saying you are free not to buy a phone, or a fridge, or clothes from private companies whose conduct you disapprove of. In any meaningful sense, to participate in today’s society, you are not.

Andrea X
Andrea X
11 months ago

Facebook has a ban on anonymous accounts? Yeah right.

Last edited 11 months ago by Andrea X
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
11 months ago

I think the article misses a key point.
There are many ways for individuals to seek support online that don’t require posting of personalised comments on message boards.
How many people have not heard of Google and also don’t know how to use a telephone ?

Last edited 11 months ago by Ian Barton
Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
11 months ago

Silly. Why send something underground by banning it? Those with evil intent already use codes, encryption, burner phones and one time use anon. remailers. Leave Mad Martin McMad where we can all see him.