Twitter joins backlash against Australian plan to ID social media users

As another critic says, the government's 'incredibly reckless' idea would strip the shield of anonymity from myriad vulnerable groups because 'a few white men are uncomfortable' with criticism online.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor
Image: Getty Images

Australia's plan to force social media users to identify themselves could damage people, harm international relations, and even breach human rights obligations, according to participants in a media roundtable on Friday.

The Morrison government's recent rush to identify users is based on the assumption that this would reduce online abuse. But according to Kara Hinesley, Twitter's public policy director for Australia and New Zealand, there are few reasons to think it would work.

"The concerns around anonymity in this current debate have been over-simplified, and system design changes cannot solve social problems without actual social change," Hinesley said.

"It's not clear that anonymity is the primary driver of abusive and antisocial behaviour online. It's even less clear that requiring government identification for social media would do anything to fix the situation.

"I want to emphasise -- I cannot emphasise this enough -- a tech solution cannot fix the social problem."

Twitter organised the roundtable in conjunction with Digital Rights Watch, whose executive director, Lucie Krahulcova, was even more critical.

Krahulcova is "incredibly frustrated" by this question of pursuing people when they're anonymous online. It's been her "extensive experience" that law enforcement isn't particularly interested in pursuing people who libel, malign, harass, or commit similar crimes online.

"They're not actually very excited about enforcing [existing laws] on behalf of women, people of colour, and historically I think there's plenty of evidence of that in Australia," Krahulcova said.

"When we are speaking now about an attack on anonymity, it is because white men are uncomfortable with the criticism they get online. And that's not just politicians, it's also certain reporters and kind of sports stars and stuff. It is precisely because this societal group of privilege is frustrated with criticism," she said.

"None of these people were upset when Yassmin Abdel-Magied was bullied basically off the internet for having a controversial opinion."

Anonymity is a 'critical tool' for individual protection

According to Hinesley, removing anonymity "could damage the people who rely on anonymity and pseudonymity online", and those people are many.

She and other panellists listed groups such as journalists protecting whistleblowers and other sources; people exploring their sexuality or gender identity; ethnic or religious minorities exploring their heritage; people escaping domestic violence and other abuses; human rights defenders; dissidents; and artists.

"Anonymity can be a form of protection and a critical tool for people... Evidence is overwhelmingly pointing to anonymity bans being ineffective," Hinesley said.

According to Dr Emily van der Nagel, a social researcher at Monash University, "using a real name is not as straightforward for a lot of people online".

"Separating real names from social media profiles and usernames is an essential strategy for compartmentalising contexts, and for getting the most out of social media," she said.

Indeed, names even have the potential to signal which audience we're communicating with. Think of the different dynamics of the full name, the nickname, the stage name, or even no name at all.

"We know that real name policies and mandatory identity verification, they don't make the internet safer or kinder," van der Nagel said.

"Instead, they damage attempts to contextualise our communication, forge the kinds of connections that matter on social media, and get in the way of us experiencing the kind of joy that's possible in these spaces."

These issues are explored further in van der Nagel's doctoral thesis, Social Media Pseudonymity: Affordances, Practices, Disruptions [PDF] and other academic writing.

Anonymity is part of the right to freedom of expression

Anonymity and pseudonymity are not only important, but they're "guaranteed by human rights law", according to law professor David Kaye, a former United Nations special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

"There's a history of more or less explicit recognition that freedom of expression includes the freedom to speak, to seek, receive, impart information and ideas anonymously," he said.

This understanding is built on article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a signatory.

"Anonymous speech, certainly in the development of democratic societies, has been essential to public debate. It's been essential to individual human development in repressive societies," Kaye said.

"Undermining anonymity has rarely been shown to be necessary in the circumstances, and has often been shown to be a kind of interference based on illegitimate purposes, for example, a desire to find out who's criticising you."

Kaye believes that anonymity and the confidentiality of communications are currently under threat everywhere.

"It's under threat in democratic societies. It's under threat in authoritarian ones. There tend to be different reasons for that threat, but it's very much under threat," he said.

"Australia's proposals, I think, go beyond what we've seen in most rule of law-oriented societies."

Australia is of course the only major democracy that lacks a bill of rights.

As Krahulcova noted, Australia's policies are already being "mentioned in paperwork" in Europe and in the US, and she worried about the potential repercussions.

"I worry that the approach that the Australian government is taking is actually just incredibly reckless. It's not just bad policy. It's reckless," she said.

"Australia needs to have a serious think about the system that it's putting out into the world."

Last month Twitter outlined its views on regulating social media in a position paper, Protecting The Open Internet: Regulatory principles for policy makers [PDF].

"The Open Internet is global, should be available to all, and should be built on open standards and the protection of human rights," it said.

"Content moderation is more than just leave up or take down. Regulation should allow for a range of interventions, while setting clear definitions for categories of content."

Regulations should also protect competition, choice, and innovation, rather than entrenching the existing platforms, Twitter said.

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