Working together to make the internet safer for everyone

The Online Safety Bill is a landmark piece of legislation designed to spell out in law a set of rules for how online platforms should behave to better protect their customers and users.

It aims to prevent the dissemination of illegal content and activities such as images of child abuse, terrorist material and hate crimes, including racist abuse; protect children from harmful materials; and to protect adults from legal – but harmful – content.

The Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on March 17, 2022, after being considered by the Joint Parliamentary Committee for several months and reviewed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Even before its introduction, various parts of the bill were being dripped in the media, such as measures to protect people from anonymous trolls, protect children from pornography, and stamp out illegal content. Every development has been carefully scrutinized.

And since its introduction, it has continued with many current and former politicians, tech executives and business leaders sharing their views on the bill, described by the UK government as “another important step towards the end of the harmful era of self-regulation of technology”.

Every development and announcement to date has been carefully scrutinized. But the big question is: will the bill protect internet users and hold tech giants to account?

An important step towards a safer Internet

The bill has been widely accepted as a good starting point for proposed updates to rules that are long overdue. These rules are now much clearer and should therefore be easier to control.

Finally, 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 from regulator Ofcom. of the communications industry that oversees the law.

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 death.

Lack of clarity

When you get down to business, there is language that could be tightened up and issues that need to be addressed. For example, the bill needs to be more specific about the balance between freedom of expression and protecting people from online abuse.

Although fraud is mentioned, it is often lost among minors’ access to pornography and abuse. Fraud is epidemic in the UK and must be a central part of the bill.

A first problem with the previous version of the bill was that it positioned algorithms capable of detecting and dealing with abusive content as the main solution. It doesn’t prevent the problem – it just allows for action after the event.

No doubt in recognition of this, the UK government recently added the introduction of user verification on social media. This will allow people to choose to only see content from users who have verified that they are who they say they are, which is welcome.

But the government doesn’t know what those accounts look like, and its suggestions for how people can verify their identities are flawed. Passports and texting a smartphone just aren’t fit for the digital age.

Account options

There should be three account options for social media users:

  • Anonymous accounts: available to those who need it, for example whistleblowers, journalists or people under threat. There will always be a minority who will use it for nefarious reasons, but it is a necessary price to pay to maintain the anonymity of those who need it. Bad actors will receive artificial intelligence (AI) attention to identify and remove content and hold platforms to account.
  • Verified Account: Orthonym (real name) – accounts that use a real name online (like on LinkedIn) and are linked to a verified person.
  • Verified Accounts: Pseudonym – accounts that use an online name that does not necessarily identify the actual user to peers on the network (as some people use on Twitter), but are linked to accounts verified by third-party provider services independent. Leaving identification in the hands of social media platforms would only allow them to further exploit personal information for their own gain and would not engender the security and trust a person needs to use such a service.

The beauty of this approach is that it remains completely voluntary and within the control of each individual to choose whether to verify themselves or continue to engage in the anonymous world we currently live in.

Most users would surely choose to only interact with verified accounts if such a service were available. Thus, abuse and bile of anonymous and unverified accounts can be disabled. After all, who doesn’t want a more enjoyable Internet where there are no trolls or scammers?

User Verification

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

Using data from banks, which have already verified 98% of the UK adult population, social media companies can ensure that their users are who they say they are, while users only share data that they claim to be. they wish, thereby protecting their privacy. This system can also protect minors against age-restricted content.

Such digital identity systems already exist in countries like Belgium, Norway and Sweden and have been widely adopted and used for a range of use cases. There is of course no suggestion that such a service will on its own eliminate online abuse, but it would certainly be a big step in the right direction.

The Online Safety Bill is certainly a progressive initiative. While this type of legislation is being discussed in different countries, the UK is now leading the charge and its approach is consistent with those being considered around the world.

However, the government cannot win this fight alone. It needs buy-in from social media companies, banks, businesses and consumers. Through collaboration and adopting the right tools, we can help make the internet and social media platforms a safer place for everyone.

Martin Wilson is CEO of Digital Identity Net.

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