On 11 July 2021, England lost the Euro 2020 to Italy. In the weeks that followed, the three English players who missed their penalties — Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Buyako Saka — were subjected to a barrage of vitriol and racist abuse on various social media platforms. The scale and severity of the abuse these individuals suffered pushed the exploitable nature of social media into the public eye. This prompted a reopening of the debate on whether verified IDs should be made mandatory for social media users with the intent to de-anonymise harmful online activity and to ease traceability and persecution of any offences.
The recent public push for greater online accountability is nothing new. It follows a popular petition, submitted by Katie Price and supported by more than 600,000 signatures, which called for verified IDs to become a legal requirement during the creation of a social media account. Boris Johnson’s government has pledged its commitment to curtailing online abuse and has stated that such issues will be addressed in the pending Online Safety Bill, which follows the Online Harms White Paper published in April 2019. The drafted bill has five primary aims:
To impose a duty of care on social media service providers concerning the content on their platforms
To address illegal and harmful online content (including terrorism, radicalisation, racist abuse and fraud)
To protect children from exploitation and abuse
To protect the rights of social media users regarding their freedom of expression and privacy
To promote media literacy
A policy requiring social media users to link their verified ID to their social media accounts would address the bill’s first two aims. This would aid law enforcement in prosecuting perpetrators of illegal and harmful online behaviour, such as racist abuse, sexist abuse, discrimination, harassment, fraud, inciting violence and terrorism, among others. The potential for online behaviour to impact the "real life" of a social media user would hopefully also act as a deterrent to such criminal acts in the first place.
Mandatory IDs would also prove useful towards the bill’s third aim: the protection of children. It would ensure that age verification is more effectively enforced while also establishing a better safeguarding system by which any abusers minors may encounter online are fully and easily traceable. More generally, the mandatory ID policy would also improve user experience by massively cutting down the scale on which automated accounts, foreign bots and trolls can operate.
However, such a policy would also risk placing already marginalised individuals at higher risk. The Electoral Commission’s 2021 Public Opinion Tracker found that more disadvantaged groups — such as the unemployed, the disabled, housing association renters and the elderly — are less likely to have driving licenses or passports. This policy would also have the most detrimental effect on the most vulnerable groups, such as the homeless and illegal migrants, who do not have access to any valid form of ID — depriving them further of aspects of modern life many take for granted.
There also exists another strong counter-argument to the benefits of mandatory ID, built on aim four of the Online Safety Bill. Online anonymity prevents personal or state persecution for personal views or circumstances on sensitive topics such as politics, race or sexuality. Freedom of expression and online privacy may be a matter of life and death to social media users who operate within oppressive regimes. The connection of online profiles to actual identities also increases the scope for the monetisation (illicit or otherwise) of users’ personal data. South Korea’s Constitutional Court condemned this practice as “treating all citizens as potential criminals”, following a period of five years (2007 to 2012) when South Korean websites were legally compelled to collect their users’ national identification numbers.
In the face of such compelling negatives, the Online Safety Bill, perhaps rightly, omits any regulation requiring social media platforms to request user IDs. Instead, to ensure social media users are less vulnerable to abuse, platforms are called to provide closer and more stringent monitoring of user-generated content as well as granting users more sophisticated control over who they interact with online.
There have been other conceptions of how IDs might be incorporated into online safety that mitigate any negative consequences. One such proposition is a curtailed social media experience for those unable or unwilling to link their identities with their online profiles — limiting their online interactions to "friends" or mutual followers. This would, in theory, allow unhampered anonymity outside of the part of social media that constitutes a public platform. In its current iteration, however, the negatives of the proposed ID policy far outweigh its positives.
Most crucially, hate speech is a society-wide issue currently manifesting most prominently through social media. The dismantling of online anonymity through mandatory ID verification does not guarantee the end of abuse — far from it, in fact. A recent instance is the racist abuse directed at Marcus Rashford through both the defacing of his Manchester mural and on Twitter. While verified IDs may simplify the process of prosecuting trolls and abusers, law enforcement have already proven themselves capable of identifying criminals through digital metadata alone — though such processes are often reserved for perpetrators of more serious crimes such as terrorism.
With regard to using mandatory IDs for the purposes of protecting social media users from online abuse, such regulations appear a palliative, rather than curative act — at the steep cost of depriving users of much of their privacy and freedom of speech.