New plans unveiled to tackle anonymous trolls

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Twitter, Facebook and Instagram logos on an iPhone screen.

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LONDON — Tech platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter will be required to introduce identity verification tools to help users block anonymous online trolls, under new plans announced by the UK government on Friday .

The proposals mean that online platforms should give users a way to verify their identity and allow them to block any unverified account from sending or replying to messages.

It would be up to tech companies to decide how to carry out identity checks, the government said, adding that this could include:

  • The ability to verify a user’s profile picture using facial recognition software.
  • Two-factor authentication technology that sends someone a text message asking them to verify their identity.
  • The requirement for government-issued identification, such as a passport, when creating or updating a social account.

UK media watchdog Ofcom has been tasked by the government with providing guidance on how companies can meet the user verification requirement.

Another measure would require tech companies to develop tools that allow users to filter out any content deemed “legal but harmful”. This could include new settings that prevent users from receiving recommendations on certain topics or placing “sensitivity screens” on such content, the government said.

The new measures are added to the new UK Online Safety Bill, which would impose a duty of care on digital platforms to protect users from harmful content.

Failure to comply could result in fines of up to 10% of a company’s global annual revenue. Regulators would also have the power to block access to non-compliant services in the UK. The bill still needs to be finalized and must be approved by Parliament before becoming law.

“Tech companies have a responsibility to prevent anonymous trolls from polluting their platforms,” ​​UK Digital Minister Nadine Dorries said in a statement on Friday.

“People will now have more control over who can contact them and be able to stop the tidal wave of hate being served up to them by rogue algorithms.”

Twitter said it considers anonymity “a vital tool for speaking out in oppressive regimes”, adding that it is “no less essential in democratic societies”.

“We are reviewing details of proposed new features,” a Twitter spokesperson told CNBC. “Our goal remains a safe internet for everyone, whether someone is able or chooses to verify themselves or not.”

Spokespersons for Facebook and Google were not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Last year, black football players in England were subjected to a barrage of racist abuse on Instagram and Twitter, prompting the platforms to do more to tackle anonymous abuse. Companies at the time said they moved quickly to remove racist posts and accounts.

The assassination of British lawmaker David Amess in his constituency last year has further bolstered calls for tech companies to root out anonymous trolls. The attack, which was declared terrorist by police, has raised concerns about the level of online abuse MPs face on a daily basis.

It is unclear exactly how the latest measures proposed by the government would work. Some activists have expressed concern that the bill could limit freedom of expression online. However, the government says it will not demand the suppression of all legal free speech.

“Unfortunately, the content doesn’t come with a ‘legal but harmful’ tag, so the idea that platforms can exclude people from such things is nonsense,” Jim Killock, Executive Director of The Open Rights Group, an organization that campaigns for internet freedoms, told CNBC.

“What this means is that people choose whether the algorithms block things that might be offensive, with the inevitable result that posts about ‘Scunthorpe’ or ‘garden hoes’ are removed in the name of safety” , he added, referring to the inadvertent blocking of phrases mistaken for offensive terms.

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