A petition calling for an identification requirement in order to use social media has circulated on the internet. Over 600K have signed it.

The appeal is obvious. We have seen the horrific racial online abuse Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were subjected to after the Euros. No one should endure that and an ID would make it easier to identify the perpetrator. The Director of Policy at The Charted Institute for IT, Doctor Bill Mitchell, favours ID verification to stop social media platforms being ‘consequence-free playgrounds’.

However, people online have raised legitimate concerns about this petition. People use social media to tell stories left out of the mainstream media. Domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors use anonymous accounts to safely share their experiences. There are 3.5 million people on the UK electorate without a photo ID. Requiring children under 18 to have their parents’ permission to open a social media account is not an option for children living with abusive parents or guardians.

The forgotten consequence of an ID requirement

There is a plethora of reasons why an ID requirement is a bad idea. However, the concern runs much deeper. Requiring an ID would impinge on citizens’ freedom of speech and foster self-censorship. Social media is an integral part of how we communicate in the modern world. Activists organise protests and whistleblowers share information to hold influential and powerful people to account. Given the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’s threat to protest rights, this move to further tighten freedom of expression is disconcerting. Although some businesses do this already, an ID would exacerbate the likelihood of current or potential employers checking their employees or applicants’ social media profiles to get a sense of their political stance and much more.

Those in favour of an ID requirement argue that it would make it easier to hold online offenders to account. But accountability on social media would involve having to remove accounts and content. This is where lines become blurred. Censorship rarely stops at just those who deserve to be reined in — think trolls, bullies and racists. Leftists who cheered after Donald Trump was banned from social media without due process are now experiencing the same censorship and opaque decision-making process.

Without explanation, Facebook shut down the accounts of one of the biggest left-wing organisations in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party. The organisation supports Palestine and Black Lives Matter while opposing Boris Johnson’s Covid policies. At least half a dozen of its members have had their Facebook account permanently deleted without the option to appeal. This is common practice and also happens to smaller accounts. Over 800 political accounts and pages that challenged corporate media narratives, including some anti-war and libertarian pages and pages that documented police brutality, were removed.

Unaccountable oligarchs holding too much power

Defenders of enforcing IDs argue that we can’t let social media users groom or abuse people online with content that incites violence or enables terrorists to recruit and indoctrinate the vulnerable. I agree, there have to be consequences. Freedom of speech has its limitations when it turns into libel or hate speech.

Still, social media companies should be legally required to adhere to free speech laws and be transparent about their decision-making. Currently, we are trusting oligarchs to regulate speech around the world. Google promised China a censored version of its search engine that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protests. Giving our IDs to these corporations will make state surveillance a lot easier.

The basic problem is that unelected, nameless and unaccountable social media executives get to define what constitutes as ‘hateful’ and ‘low-quality content’, ‘glorifying violence’ or ‘sowing division’. These definitions aren’t clear, which means anything can be blanket banned. If someone violates free speech laws, that would be grounds to deplatform them or remove their content. However, social media companies are not qualified to decide on these legal matters.

Acting as judge, jury and executioner, Facebook uses its own oversight board to investigate its own content- regulation decisions. ‘Facebook’s decisions have an impact on our democracies, national security and biosecurity and cannot be left to their own in house theatre of the absurd’, said Imran Ahmed, CEO Centre for Countering Digital Hate. Technology law and free speech expert, Gautam Hans, criticised Facebook for ‘trying to create an accountability mechanism that undermines efforts to have government regulation and legislation’ which could potentially harm its business.

Although the ID proposal is well-meaning, we need to be careful about what we wish for and assess the consequences. An ID requirement and subsequent censorship won’t stop racism or other forms of abuse, which will find other channels and means of expression. The approach is too simplistic for what is, at heart, a complex issue. IDs are not the way forward.

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