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The Online Safety Bill, a landmark piece of legislation which has been five years in the making, has stirred up a lot of debate in recent weeks.

by Martin Wilson, CEO, Digital Identity Net 

Martin Wilson, CEO, Digital Identity Net 

It is designed to lay down in law a set of rules about how online platforms should behave to better protect their customers and users. The bill covers a wide range of issues including the spreading of illegal content, protecting children from harmful material and protecting individuals against fraud.

Even before its introduction, various parts of the bill were drip-fed via the media, such as measures to protect people from anonymous trollsprotect children from pornography and stamp out illegal content. Each development was met with intense scrutiny.

And since its introduction, this has continued with many current and former politicians, tech execs and business leaders sharing their views on the bill described by the UK government as ‘another important step towards ending the damaging era of tech self-regulation’.

But is it enough to protect people online?

Welcome change

The rules the bill sets out to change have needed updated for a long time. The bill brings more clarity and should be easier to police.

At last, big tech will be held accountable as the bill imposes a duty of care on social media platforms to protect users from harmful content, at the risk of a substantial fine brought by Ofcom, the communications industry regulator implementing the act.

It’s a step towards making the internet a safer, collaborative place for all users, rather than leaving it in its current ‘Wild West’ state, where many people are vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence and in some cases even loss of life.

User verification

An initial issue I had with the earlier version of the bill, is that it positions algorithms which can spot and deal with abusive content as the main solution. This does not prevent the problem; it merely enables action to be taken after the event.

Arguably in recognition of this, the UK Government recently added the introduction of user verification on social media. It will enable people to choose only see content from users who have verified they are who they say they are – all of which are welcomed.

But the Government isn’t clear on what those accounts look like and its suggestions on how people can verify their identity are flawed. The likes of passports and sending a text to a smartphone simply aren’t fit for the digital age.

Account options

 In my view, there should be three account options for social media users.

  • Anonymous accounts: available for those who need it e.g., whistle blowers, journalists or people under threat. There will still be a minority who use this for nefarious reasons, but this is a necessary price to pay to maintain anonymity for those who need it. The bad actors will receive the focus of AI to identify and remove content and hold the platforms to account.
  • Verified account: Orthonymous (real name) – accounts that use a real name online (e.g., LinkedIn) and are linked to a verified person.
  • Verified accounts: Pseudonymous – accounts that use an online name that does not necessarily identify the actual user to peers on the network (e.g., some Twitter), but are linked to verified accounts by the services of an independent third-party provider. Leaving identification in the hands of the social media platforms would only enable them to further exploit personal information for their own gain and not engender the security and trust a person needs to use such a service. The beauty of this approach is that it remains entirely voluntary and in the control of each individual to choose whether to verify themselves or continue to engage in the anonymous world we currently live in.

We expect that most users would choose to only interact with verified accounts if such a service was available and so the abuse and bile from anonymous, unverified accounts can be turned off. After all, who doesn’t want a nicer internet where there are no trolls or scammers?

Verifying users

In terms of verification, the solution is a simple one. Let’s look to digital identity systems which let people prove who they are without laborious and potentially unreliable manual identity checks.

Using data from the banks, which have already verified 98% of the UK adult population, social media firms can ensure their users are who they say they are, while users share only the data they want to, so protecting their privacy. This system can also protect underage people from age-restricted content.

Such digital identity systems already exist in countries such as Belgium, Norway and Sweden and have seen strong adoption and usage for a range of use cases. There is of course no suggestion that such a service will eradicate online abuse all on its own, but it would certainly be a big step in the right direction.

Buy-in required

With the introduction of the Online Safety Bill, the UK is now leading the charge on protecting people online and its approach is consistent to those being considered around the world.

However, the Government needs buy-in from social media firms, banks, businesses and consumers to win this fight. By working together and utilising the right tools and partners, we can all help protect people online, making the internet and social media platforms a safer place for all.

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