Anonymity online: the great balancing act of the digital age

It’s one of the most vexed issues of the digital age, but when it comes to anonymity, the right to privacy and free speech must be balanced against the right to live free from online harassment and abuse.

While anonymity can be a powerful form of protection for victims of domestic violence, whistle blowers and those living under authoritarian regimes, it can also provide safe harbour for those wishing to propagate online misinformation and hate, abuse children, or target others online.

“While anonymity is important, it can’t be at all costs because while it can indeed be a powerful protector of free speech, it can also be misused to abuse and harass with impunity and this can actually result in the silencing of victims,” eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said.

“As with most things there needs to be a balance, and there are simple ways we can still preserve anonymity while also providing a means to identify those who hide behind it to abuse, harass and threaten others.”

eSafety today released its latest position paper on anonymity and identity shielding online in which it highlights the need for more rigorous, consistent and transparent verification of online social media accounts.

It also calls on tech companies to take greater steps to suspend or remove anonymous accounts that are created to harass users or that violate a platform’s terms of service, particularly the use of fake and impersonator accounts.

“We have seen the use of anonymous and imposter accounts used to devastating affect with volumetric trolling where victims are inundated with coordinated, multi-platform abuse with the ultimate goal of silencing them,” Ms Inman Grant said.

“We saw this with Magda Szubanski when she fronted a Victorian Government public health campaign to promote the wearing of masks.”

Concepts such as ‘digital licence plates’, blockchain-based identity management systems and digital signatures are also being explored as potential solutions to authenticate people online.

The release of the Anonymity position paper comes as Government reforms to the Online Safety Act are currently out for consultation. The reforms include potential new powers for the eSafety Commissioner to seek identification or contact information behind anonymous accounts that are used to abuse, harass or humiliate others.


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