20 Sep 2022

Would an ID Verification Requirement Solve our Social Media Issues?

Could an ID requirement on social media platforms deter users from posting hate speech and fake news? Schillings Partner Allan Dunlavy explores the consequences of ID verification, and how it may work in practice.

I have friends who have had to leave Twitter because they find it so negative and toxic that they get depressed and disillusioned just scrolling through the posts. These people are not being attacked themselves, so I can only imagine the emotions of those who become direct victims of trolling when they check their social media accounts.

The truth is that today anyone can target anyone else, anonymously, and spread falsehoods about them and, currently, as the law stands, there’s little that can really can be done about it. Although there are legal steps that can be taken to counter this in some jurisdictions, more often than not the law doesn’t work as effectively as victims require: it is time consuming, slow and can be costly and, even if the troll’s information is successfully obtained, it is usually fake. It’s clear that today, technology is outpacing the law and the protections offered are not really fit for purpose when faced with the constantly evolving and immediate nature of social media.

At Schillings, my colleagues and I have countless clients who are struggling to defend themselves against anonymous perpetrators. We deal with issues like this on a near daily basis and usually we can make an educated guess as to who may have taken against our client but still it is often not possible to positively identify who is behind a campaign – even if you have a clear suspicion who you think it is.

Hate speech, fake news – and absolute anonymity

Allowing harmful online speech to continue as the status quo is simply not an option and we cannot afford for the situation to get worse. Rampant hate speech and fake news is causing severe damage to mental health, especially to the young and most vulnerable, and it is allowing conspiracy theories to flourish. It is tearing apart the fabric of society, undermining our elections, causing people to lose money and security, giving disproportionate exposure to the loudest but smallest, most extreme and fringe parts of society, including the racists and haters.

Absolute anonymity online is a key factor in all of these types of harmful speech. Giving online users the ability to completely conceal themselves and disguise their identities emboldens them to post whatever they want (whether true or not), attack whoever they want without fear or concern for the consequences of their actions and generally to lie, steal and cheat. This anonymity also deprives police of the ability to enforce the law and denies victims their rights, as they have no recourse to take action against those who are attacking them online.

Of course, this same anonymity has played a vital role in the freedom of expression and exploration that our online world offers. But at what cost do we continue to support it? It is normal for societies to evolve and to become more sophisticated as new dangers and new ways to protect people are identified and the internet should be no exception here.

A need for ID?

If social media companies had requirements that users provide real and verifiable ID in order to open an account, then they would be able to maintain a proper database of users and this information would be available to the police and victims in order to hold people to account for what they post online.

You would still be able to post under a pseudonym, but your true identity would be accessible in the event that any online activity was illegal or breached a victim’s rights. It would be common knowledge that posting illegal or harassing content would have consequences. This would act as a significant deterrent against the type of toxic behaviour that is increasingly common online.

I believe that this is a cultural shift that is entirely possible. We readily accept that banks require extremely thorough ID to prevent fraud and money laundering, so a simple real ID requirement feels like a natural next step for social media.

Of course, this remains a thorny debate. Potential data breaches at social media companies could further expose users required to share photo ID. But this should not stop this option being considered. Banks hold much more significant information and access to all of your money; yet online banking is commonplace. The social media companies have a responsibility to step up their fraud protection and cyber security. And, in reality, the only additional data they would hold as a result of a policy like this is a copy of your driver’s licence or passport. This is not a significant step up from the substantial, and potentially financially valuable, data you and I have already given them for free…

Would ID stifle free speech?

Another concern is that greater accountability and traceability of users will stifle free speech and prevent opposition speech, especially in countries with oppressive regimes. But let’s not get too fixated on this. The current discussion is around the possibility of introducing new ID requirements in the US, UK and Europe. Any oppressive regime could, right now, require social media companies operating in their country to require ID. Equally, another country wanting to avail itself to any US, UK or European law around ID requirements and disclosure would need to prove its request met the necessary requirements of disclosure.

Another common argument against traceability is that it would hinder individuals who want to confidentially join support groups or otherwise anonymously participate in a group online, such as an undercover journalist. This is when it becomes important to distinguish between a ‘real name’ policy and a policy requiring real ID to be obtained and held by social media companies.

A real name policy means you must have your real name on your account – which is not what we are discussing here. Using a pseudonym online has a number of benefits, can still be a typical part of online life and has no real downside, as long as the account is backed by real and verified ID that can be disclosed to the police or a victim where appropriate.

In the US, Supreme Court cases arising out of the civil rights movement are often cited in opposition to a real ID requirement. In fact, these support the argument for an ID requirement. In these cases, the civil rights groups maintained lists of their members and they were resisting disclosure to authorities looking to unconstitutionally clamp down on them. They were ultimately successful as the Supreme Court decided that disclosure was not proper or proportionate.

Likewise, in this situation, although social media companies would collect true user ID and maintain a list of users, they would be free to refuse disclosure requests – for example if they believed that the request was for an oppressive or improper purpose. The requesting party, as in the civil rights cases, could then go to Court seeking disclosure. These examples show that our courts are more than capable of considering disclosure requests and ensuring that requests are proper and proportionate.

Ultimately, we need to strike a balance between the rights of people who want to be free to say whatever they want, (and attack whoever they want anonymously), and the rights of people to not be attacked or bullied or suffer hate speech online. As the old saying goes – your right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins. At the moment, this balance is all wrong, with the rights of victims being completely ignored and overridden by the rights of those who want to be able to anonymously say whatever they want.

We need to reset this balance and give victims a genuine opportunity to protect their rights. Our laws must properly reflect the balance between accessing and expanding on the incredible possibilities of online communities and the need to make the internet safe and more accountable. Social media companies carrying out proper ID checks for all users is a necessary first step.

So where do you stand on this? Would you be comfortable to be identifiable by law, even if your posts are anonymous? I leave the last word to Quentin L. Cook, who said, “One of your greatest protections against making bad choices is to not put on any mask of anonymity.”