UK Government Report Recommends Ending Online Anonymity

from the dangerous-and-stupid dept

Every so often, people who don’t really understand the importance of anonymity or how it enables free speech (especially among marginalized people), think they have a brilliant idea: “just end real anonymity online.” They don’t seem to understand just how shortsighted such an idea is. It’s one that stems from the privilege of being in power. And who knows that particular privilege better than members of the House of Lords in the UK — a group that is more or less defined by excess privilege? The Communications Committee of the House of Lords has now issued a report concerning “social media and criminal offenses” in which they basically recommend scrapping anonymity online. It’s not a true “real names” proposal — as the idea is that web services would be required to collect real names at signup, but then could allow those users to do things pseudonymously or anonymously. But, still, their actions could then easily be traced back to a real person if the “powers that be” deemed it necessary. Here’s the key bit:

From our perspective in the United Kingdom, if the behaviour which is currently criminal is to remain criminal and also capable of prosecution, we consider that it would be proportionate to require the operators of websites first to establish the identity of people opening accounts but that it is also proportionate to allow people thereafter to use websites using pseudonyms or anonymously. There is little point in criminalising certain behaviour and at the same time legitimately making that same behaviour impossible to detect. We recognise that this is a difficult question, especially as it relates to jurisdiction and enforcement.

The report notes that the findings are “tentative” and that these recommendations might possibly “be an undesirably chilling step towards tyranny,” but they don’t seem that concerned about it, or they wouldn’t have made the general recommendation in the first place.

There is a long list of problems with such a proposal, beyond the obvious questions of how you would possibly enforce it and what the various chilling effects would be. But let’s take it one step further and note the fallacy of the very premise made in the report: that without such requirements it is “impossible to detect” who did an action online deemed to be illegal. We’ve been dealing with this issue forever. A decade ago, we reported on the various freakouts over open WiFi and how it would “allow” anyone to commit crimes online and make it “impossible” to find them. And yet, time after time, we noted examples of basic detective work allowing police to track down the criminals.

Yes, without being forced to first identify yourself, it might make the police work a bit more difficult, but never impossible. Take a similar situation in the physical world. Anyone can walk into a store or a bank and hold it up. And they can do it without identifying themselves at the door before coming in. It happens all the time. Police have no official identity to work with, but they do have other clues — fingerprints, video, photos, the clerk’s memory — to work off of and can piece together who committed the crime. The same is true of people online. Even if they don’t identify themselves upfront, they frequently leave plenty of clues that allow law enforcement to figure out who they are.

So the very premise that this is somehow necessary is pretty much eliminated. Then combine it with all of the downsides that we already know about: chilling effects, the end of important anonymity, potential privacy violations and leaks and more. What you’re left with is a horrible idea all around.

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Comments on “UK Government Report Recommends Ending Online Anonymity”

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art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“After they exempt themselves…”

precisely, if it isn’t done explicitly, it is done by non-enforcement on the ruling klasses…
perhaps the sheeple should take note that puppetmasters can wreck world economies and rake in trillions of ill-gotten gains, ruining countless lives, and waltz away to orchestral music…
99%-ers -especially the browner, poorer ones- can look squinty-eyed at The Man, and they get rousted, persecuted, or summarily executed…
all perfectly legal and justified, of course…
why ? well, ’cause, fuck you, is why…

Michael (profile) says:

There is little point in criminalising certain behaviour and at the same time legitimately making that same behaviour impossible to detect.

Absolutely correct. Right there – cannot argue with that logic. If you cannot determine who did something, it does not make sense to call it a crime.

And if I say that in my head with a British accent, it sounds even dumber.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There is little point in criminalising certain behaviour and at the
> same time legitimately making that same behaviour impossible to detect.

By ‘detect’ does the House of Lords mean to detect the result of a crime? Or who did it? If the result, then…

Hey. Psssssst! I did something bad, but nobody will ever be able to detect that I did something bad.

You cannot detect it. Not now. Not ever. No victim. No missing person. The bad thing I did doesn’t affect anyone, anywhere. Or any property.

Certain self appointed moral crusaders will say that this must therefore be the worst kind of crime.

Maybe the common folks should not be allowed to think unmonitored thoughts?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Anonymity is required as protection from the Government and police when a person wishes to ask questions, or make public information, that could seriously embarrass those in power; or when they make severe criticism the action of those entities. Without citizen anonymity the state becomes a theocracy and/or oligarchy running a police state.

(P.S. Ed Snowden is in Russia because he could not remain anonymous.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Bad Bad analogy!

The problem is not that there are TOO MANY of them. The problem is now that everyone is a criminal… they can pick and choose when to chase even JUST ONE of the many down.

There are so many laws on the books contradicting each other that following one law means breaking another…

This has always been about one thing… solidifying power so that all manor of opposition can be squelched as they deem necessary.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Just because you might be anonymous doesn’t mean you cannot be stopped and identified.

Even with license plates, you are relatively anonymous. As long as you don’t severely break the law, most people don’t care about your license plate number. They are more likely to check to see whether they find you attractive.

On the other hand, we also don’t need to put our names and personal information on our vehicles in big letters.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Even with license plates, you are relatively anonymous”

With automated license plate recognition becoming more and more common, this is less and less true regardless of whether you are breaking the law or not.

I know you were talking about being anonymous from ordinary people and, while that’s important, it’s less important than being anonymous from the government.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Re:

can you imagine if cars didn’t have license plates? What would the roads be like?

Maybe they’d put more traffic police on the streets to, you know, catch people breaking the road rules rather than implicitly encouraging breaking the rules to rack up speeding/red light revenue?

Besides, I know the chance of me being caught RIGHT NOW doing an illegal u-turn, changing lane on a deserted road without indicating, stopping at a red light at 3am then going through it while it’s still red, and so on is pretty slim even WITH number plates….

When there is traffic around and it would be dangerous to do that u-turn (whether legal or not), change lanes without indicating, or going through a light (whether red, yellow or green), then I use my common sense and DON’T DO IT.

Anonymous Coward says:

given what seems to be going on in the UK atm, i’m not surprised by this. i am , however, very concerned that if this progressed at all, it wouldn’t be long before it
a) got out of hand, meaning that those of power and wealth would be able to track those who were not of those categories
b) would signify even more how freedom and privacy is being removed from the ordinary people.
there is only one way to stop this and it has to be at the ballot box. it appears that this type of opinion is spreading dramatically and it wont be long before ordinary people will be banned for even talking of things that the privileged dont like and that jail sentences, even death will be handed out by those in the privileged positions. ie , the planet would turn into one that up to now has only existed in comic books and films. come to think of it, it’s the industries that exist on nothing but selling make believe that started all this shit in the first place and as governments everywhere are doing everything these industries desire, maybe i’m not far wrong with my thoughts!!

Applesauce says:

A Great Opportunity

“Anyone can walk into a store or a bank and hold it up. And they can do it without identifying themselves at the door before coming in.”
– This problem can be fixed.
We already have shoplifting portals on exits of many stores. Simply put them on the entrances as well (I’m willing to sell them for less than a couple hundred thousand dollars). Then simply deny entry to anyone not carrying a registered RFID card. With modern technology, it only takes a second or two to check the potential customer against the national database. (I will supply these systems too, for a price).
Another great advantage is that stores can run a credit check immediately and decide on the spot if the potential customer is deserving of admittance.
So many wonderful advantages and endless applications and opportunities. Sounds like Utopia.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: A Great Opportunity

A store can put RFID trackers on every aisle of the store. All the major brands in the store would pay for this information.

All kinds of advertisers, and competing stores, and Amazon and Google, would like to know which stores you visit, when you visit, how long you visit, which aisles you go to first, etc.

The robot droid at the door could greet you by name. Good Morning Mr. Smith.

If you look at a music CD in the store but don’t buy it, the RIAA can safely infer that you went home to download it. Dirty pirate.

DannyB (profile) says:

Bring police work into the 21st century

Police work should be easy. Especially in a police state.

Police just want their work to be push-button-easy like it is on TV. Or like real knowledge workers who use a computer all day.

clickitey-clickitey-click. I’ve broken through the encryption boss!

clickitety-click clickitey-click. I’ve got the bad guy boss!

(cut to shot of two dozen military assault vehicles approaching a residential home)

Congratulations! You got the bad guy who said bad things about our beloved dear leader! A free box of donuts for you! Now somebody please bulldoze all these smoldering buildings and ashes! And get these bodies out of my way.

Anonymous Coward says:

The house of Lords and excessive privilege


Since the 1997 reform, the House of Lords is largely appointed on a lifetime basis. Still more than a little privileged, granted, but this article reads as if you still think the institution is mostly hereditary nobility, which it has not been for over a decade and a half.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The house of Lords and excessive privilege

No, only 92 of them are left – the last round of reforms removed all the other hereditary peers, including peers of first creation (i.e. the first in a series of hereditary peers) unless they have life peerages as well. Nowadays you get in by either extreme conspicuous merit, as a reward for high public service (senior civil servants, officers, diplomats, academics, etc.), or by being mates with the government of the day (or bribery).

There are also senior judges, who don’t exercise their votes, and a few CofE bishops, nominally appointed by the Queen on the PM’s advice, but the PM himself follows the CofE’s recommendation

Anonymous Coward says:


Even assuming that a real name policy could end the legal protection for anonymity, the user might still avoid being traced simply by entering a fake name.

Unless all entry points to the internet are required to log all trafick and keep real names on file for later discovery, such a system can never work.

Internet user > entry point > route > online service.

A US online service is not required to ID its users for the benefit of the UK governmens, and is in any case protected from civil liability under § 230.

A noncitizen outside the territory of the US has no First Amendment right, but the online service has a First Amendment right to re-publish speech that’s illegal under UK law but protected under the First Amendment.

The most obvious examples are speech violating UK’s prohibition on publishing hate speech, spent convictions , defamation and glorification of terrorism.

In the US, the plaintiff must prove that the defamation is
false, whereas in the UK the defendant bears the burden of establishing truth.

Also in the UK, glorifying terrorism is a serious crime, whereas it’s protected speech under the First Amendment to defend the moral propriety of terrorism.

Everything boils down to that the UK is censor happy and doesn’t want to abolish its speech suppressive laws.

But why should it concern us?

Anonymous Coward says:


The person breaking the law is not the overseas provider who is under no duty to enforce UK law.

If a UK person uses a US social network to publish hate speech, the American provider should not treat any UK request different from one from China or Saudi Arabia.

If the speech is protected by the First Amendment, it should be the end of the matter.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If a UK person uses a US social network to publish hate speech, the American
> provider should not treat any UK request different from one from China or Saudi Arabia.

Ah, but then what if the RIAA or MPAA wants the UK to throw some kid in a room and throw away the room because of something the kid did that was legal in the UK, but offensive to the RIAA / MPAA here in the US?

BentFranklin (profile) says:

Persons walking down the street may commit crimes. Accordingly we should not permit anonymous walking. All pedestrians must regularly identify themselves to use the sidewalks through validation of embedded RFID chips or bar code tattoos read by ubiquitous scanners. For ease of access, provide justification beforehand of the non-criminal purpose of your walking. Once that is approved simply follow the green arrows that the government will provide in your heads-up display. Be sure not to stray from the green arrows or you may lose your pre-approved walking privileges. Simple!

rapnel (profile) says:

From our perspective in the United Kingdom, if the behaviour which is currently criminal is to remain criminal and also capable of prosecution ..

I snipped that segment out because I had a slightly different take on it in that perhaps it’s now well past time to reconsider what constitutes a criminal because I’m pretty sure that infringement, weed, poker and hookers isn’t it.

The foundation of law, or more specifically law enforcement, requires no uncertain amount of leverage to sustain. Naturally, desiring anonymity further enhances ever increasing degrees of control thus enforceability. The law, on the other hand, is held up by the people, or should be. The bit that’s getting ripped from our quickly loosening grip is that government and the public grow further and further apart as corporations and government grow ever closer. That path leads to destruction (like total global resources < null destruction.

Without a means of anonymity the scales of control will become all but permanently tilted to tyranny. I can’t recall any tyrants ever stepping aside without blood. Anybody?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Without a means of anonymity the scales of control will become all but permanently tilted to tyranny. I can’t recall any tyrants ever stepping aside without blood. Anybody?”

This is a problem caused by the many refusing to squash corruption the moment it even looks like it is there. You may thank party systems for this… it does its job exceptionally well keeping the sheeple at the left and the rights throats in efforts to protect their ‘less corrupted’ evil guy!

Anonymous Coward says:

What could go wrong? (everything)

Oh yes UK government, make innocent people even more of a victim of the gangs and robbers that you do nothing about, because that “thought criminal” defending herself with a kitchen knife is much more of a threat to society (sarcasm). Continue forcing sexual repression on your people while hiring pedophiles to help you do so. Continue repeating the mistakes of the past and doing nothing about the rising poverty. It’s hard to believe you used to have a global empire when you can barely run a country today.

With the way things are going, the stereotypical British dialect will become robotic droning about how great the government is, which is exactly what the government wants.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What could go wrong? (everything)

“With the way things are going, the stereotypical British dialect will become robotic droning about how great the government is”

No we wont! we are not going that way many to the UK don’t like this government that way we will vote them out next year! also your country wants you to be “robotic drones” as well! also they will never end online anonymity

Victims of DSTO (user link) says:

US Supreme Court on benefits of Anonymous Speech

“Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation—and their ideas from suppression—at the hand of an intolerant society.” – US Supreme Court Justice Stevens concurring McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission

bugmenot (profile) says:

Anonymity in HMG

No day goes by, or one reads a newspaper article which cites an anonymous government official. “A source close to the minister said…”
We have to give up anonymity when reading a newspaper article, while they get quoted “speaking under condition of anonymity”?

The Royal Institute of International Affairs, St. James’s Square, London, also known as Chatham House, even has an anonimity rule.

At a meeting held under the Chatham House Rule, anyone who comes to the meeting is free to use information from the discussion, but is not allowed ever to reveal the identity, employer or political party of the person making a comment. It is designed to increase openness of discussion of public policy and current affairs, as it allows people to express and discuss controversial opinions and arguments without suffering the risk of dismissal from their job, and with a clear separation from the opinion and the view of their employer.

If Her Majesty’s Government wants to abolish anonymity online, shouldn’t it begin by abolishing anonymity within its own walls?

Gilbert says:

This is how it begins.

And is the next step to have religion be mandatory written near the name, like in papers for identification ?

Like, who’s a jew ? Like in France where they passed a law where Jews had to wear Yellow “Juif” (Jew) stars on their clothing ?

And what about homosexuals ?

I will accept their law when all politicians will publish their bank account information and amounts, and a scan of every bill spend with public money.

I also want the names of everyone they know in private and public, all their rendez-vous, all money received from whom and what amount.

They want those rules for everyone else, but not them.

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