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Tech Firms Must Offer Identity Verification Tools to Tackle Anonymous Trolls Under New UK Plans

Tom Weller | DeFodi Images via Getty Images
  • The proposals mean online platforms would need to give users a way to verify their identity, and allow them to block any unverified accounts.
  • Another measure would force tech companies to develop tools that let users filter out any material that's deemed "legal but harmful."
  • The new measures are being added to Britain's incoming Online Safety Bill, which would enforce a duty of care on digital platforms to protect users from harmful content.

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

The proposals mean online platforms would need to give users a way to verify their identity, and allow them to block any unverified accounts from messaging or replying to them.

The onus would be on tech firms to decide how to carry out identity checks, the government said, adding this could include:

  • The option to verify a user's profile picture using facial recognition software.
  • Two-factor authentication tech that sends someone a text asking them to verify their identity.
  • The requirement for a government-issued ID such as a passport when creating or updating a social account.

The U.K. media watchdog Ofcom has been tasked by the government with setting out guidance on how companies can fulfill the user verification requirement.

Another measure would force tech companies to develop tools that let users filter out any material that's deemed "legal but harmful." This could include new settings that prevent users from receiving recommendations about certain topics or place "sensitivity screens" over such material, the government said.

The new measures are being added to Britain's incoming Online Safety Bill, which would enforce 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 revenues. Regulators would also have the power to block non-compliant services from being accessed in the U.K. The bill is yet to be finalized, and must be approved by Parliament before becoming law.

"Tech firms have a responsibility to stop anonymous trolls polluting their platforms," U.K. Digital Minister Nadine Dorries said in a statement Friday.

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

Twitter said it views anonymity as "a vital tool for speaking out in oppressive regimes," adding it's "no less critical in democratic societies."

"We are reviewing the details of the new proposed duties," a Twitter spokesperson told CNBC. "Our focus remains on a safe internet for all — whether or not someone is able to or chooses to verify themselves."

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

Last year, Black England soccer players were subjected to a barrage of racist abuse on Instagram and Twitter, prompting calls for platforms to do more to tackle anonymous abuse. The companies at the time said they acted quickly to remove racist posts and accounts.

The killing of British lawmaker David Amess in his constituency last year further added impetus to calls for tech firms to stamp out anonymous trolls. The attack, which was declared a terrorist incident by police, elevated concerns about the level of online abuse MPs face daily.

It's not clear exactly how the latest measures proposed by the government would work. Some campaigners have expressed concern that the bill may limit freedom of expression online. However, the government says it will not require any legal free speech to be removed.

"Unfortunately content does not come with a 'legal but harmful' label attached to it, so the idea that platforms can opt people out of such things is nonsense," Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, an organization that campaigns for internet freedoms, told CNBC.

"What it will mean is people choosing whether 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 unintentional blocking of phrases that are confused with offensive terms.

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