It's been two years since I wrote about the UK governments (failed) plans to introduce age verification for access to online porn, and despite their previous failed attempt, they have now decided they want to give it another go. Only this time, their efforts focus on forcing ID verification upon social media users in order to use social media.
It is said that in doing so they can prevent online hate speech because well, who would be stupid enough to commit a crime when their ID is attached to their account?
Nobody is doubting the governments moral reasons for doing this, hate speech is bad, of course. The problem is, it won't work. I'm not being cynical, it just won't work. Please indulge me, I will try to explain why this idea is not only absurd but also a threat to freedom, privacy and arguably democracy.
Where did this idea come from?
At the time of writing this, two weeks ago we had the Euros, I am told its a big football competition. Anyhow, the point is not the competition but the fall out of it. See, England made it to the finals, even as a person who doesn't like football I know that is a rare event. However, they didn't win the finals. The result? A bunch of "fully grown" men hurling racial abuse at the black players online.
This provoked the government to try and do something about it. Not because they feel they should (I don't think a man who compared Niqab wearers to letterboxes particularly cares for minorities) but because of social pressure. How ever they arrived at the decision to try and make a change is irrelevant to this article but what is relevant are what their plans are to solve this issue. See, our "leader" in his infinite widsom called a meeting between Downing Street and social media companies such as: TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc.
In this meeting these companies were told that they must come to a solution to prevent online racial abuse & hate speech. A number of ideas were thrown around but the most pushed one by Downing Street was the idea of an ID verification system in order to use these social media sites. The government then suggested that failing to comply with this going forward, or rather failing to come up with a solution could result in them being fined for 10% of their revenue. Now, don't get me wrong, I detest social media companies, but this is not democratic and it is simply ridiculous. Even though I absolutely agree with the moral desire, I disagree with this method of essentially forcing them to bend government will.
You might be inclined to believe that this situation or rather, this suggestion sparked outrage. But in-fact, there was an overwhelming amount of people in support of the plans. At the time of writing, over 685,000 people have signed a petition in favour of this idea. Hilariously, since the plans were suggested and now, the government have since made somewhat of a u-turn on this and are now suggesting that they won't introduce ID requirements. I suspect that is because they know they can't.
The government recognises concerns linked to anonymity online, which can sometimes be exploited by bad actors seeking to engage in harmful activity. However, restricting all users’ right to anonymity, by introducing compulsory user verification for social media, could disproportionately impact users who rely on anonymity to protect their identity."
Why Won't it Work?
Now you know where this ridiculous suggestion comes from, allow me the indulgence of explaining why it won't work and why it is extremely harmful, which the government themselves have attested to.
We only need to look at the shambles of the "porn ban" in order to understand the true ridiculousness of this idea. The porn ban notoriously failed, millions of pounds of tax payers money was dumped into this policy. Hundreds of charities banded together to try and fund it, but ultimately, the policy collapsed. Not once, but twice. Why did it collapse? Well, there's a few reasons which funnily enough also apply here:
- The biggest reason is that we have proxies, we have VPNs and almost anyone who uses the Internet (under 45) knows that such systems effectively invalidate any form of light censorship at a country level.
- Suppose a VPN didn't work, we still have Tor. And PornHub has a .onion site for those who currently have restricted Internet, here's the link in-case you need it: http://pornhubthbh7ap3u.onion/
- The government don't have a "great firewall of England". They can't block VPN traffic, they can't block Tor traffic. Ultimately, they can't block any traffic, all they can do is threaten to fine companies which don't comply and despite the governments own inflated sense of self-importance, that won't achieve anything except loss of tax pounds via companies moving out of the UK. I mean, they're already doing that but, I digress.
- Most of the companies were not onboard with their plans, nor was the rest of the world. We aren't the only country on Earth. Porn can come from anywhere and so can hatespeech.
- But perhaps the biggest reason for this falling flat on its face was that it is simply so out of touch with the reality of technology.
Alas, we arrive at the same position as the last point above with this ID verification bonanza. It's all well and good to say: "you now need ID for this, this and that!" but the truth is, that is hard to implement. Borderline impossible. The Internet is global, social media companies don't have to operate in England to have operation in England. These companies can still serve English users from anywhere they wish. The government has no control over that, nor will they ever. Unless of course they are willing to invest in a Great Firewall of England, which wouldn't work anyway.
Now, it is true that the government do have significant control over ISPs in this country, via Ofcom and the like but even with the power they have the bottom line is that people would always find a way around these kind of systems thus making them very expensive to implement, very expensive to maintain but also very useless. As I also mentioned, hatespeech can come from anywhere. This type of policy would require effectivley world agreement, which is even more unrealistic than the implementation of this policy in the first place. Even if English users do need to use ID to sign-up so they can be tracked for hate crimes, it doesn't stop someone in another country from posting hatespeech. The idea should be to stop hatespeech, not sweep it away.
As the government (rightly) pointed out in their own response, this type of policy is actually harmful. Anonymity is important for a whole host of reasons, one of the biggest perhaps is journalism. A blanket policy of needing ID to use a platform like Twitter could be detrimental to journalists who need anonymity to survive. There are also a number of other groups this applies to, whistleblowers, victims of abuse, sex workers, the list goes on. Again, the government recognised this in their response to the petition but sadly, many people do not recognise this.
Hatespeech is bad, racism is bad and anyone who denies that is fundamentally a moron. But the truth is that anonymity, privacy, freedom and democracy are also very important matters. It is almost never a good idea to undermine other important human rights to solve another one. There's always another solution, and another solution needs to be devised here. Because not only will this harmful idea not work, but it will also undermine many human rights which are equally important.
One of my suggestions for example is that as a social media platform, it is down to you to moderate it. Now, if you choose not to moderate it, that is your choice. However, this is not the case with platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. These platforms do have moderation already. One of the problems here is that they choose what they want to moderate, and oftentimes they don't moderate the right thing.
I don't have the solution to end hatespeech, sadly. But what I do have, is past experience of looking into similar policies, and that experience has told myself (and many others) that this type of action causes more harm than good and won't end hatespeech. Our goal should be to end hatespeech, not sweep it under the rug.