Scrap anonymity at web service sign-up, UK Lords advise

It would be “proportionate” for the U.K. to demand that web services establish their users’ real identities, a House of Lords committee has said.

The Communications Committee issued a report on Tuesday covering a range of issues around social media, such as trolling, bullying and revenge porn. The report was drawn up fairly quickly and, as such, the peers described their opinion as “tentative” – broadly speaking, they said existing British laws against harassment and malicious communications seemed to be sufficient for policing the online world.

However, on the issue of anonymity they had this to offer:

“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.”

In fairness, they also said there would be problems around jurisdiction and enforcement, and acknowledged that there was also a slippery-slope risk: “Would this be an undesirably chilling step towards tyranny, or merely a necessary administrative step to ensure that law enforcement agencies can properly investigate crime?”

“Dangerous, illiberal and stupid”

Real names aren’t as much of an issue around revenge porn – it’s generally obvious where the pictures come from – but they are relevant to trolling and bullying.

Here, as always, it’s important to remember that the U.K. has strict libel and defamation laws that override the right to free expression. And that’s where those jurisdictional problems haunt the debate, as the services we’re talking about – mainly Facebook(s fb) and Twitter(s twtr) – are based in the free-speech-first U.S.

University of Strathclyde Professor of Internet Law Lilian Edwards, who gave advice to the committee, told me that requiring real names at sign-up would be “a dangerous, illiberal and stupid policy.” This is partly because American sites would never agree to it, even if an attempt was made through the U.K. courts, but also because it would be unenforceable — even in the U.K.

“We have no online passport,” Edwards said. “[There’s] no way consumers could reasonably be expected to reliably identify themselves in a way proportionate to any gains in justice efficiency.”

Edwards also pointed out that state real-name policies, usually associated with authoritarian regimes such as that in China, didn’t have a great track record. “South Korea’s was a complete disaster, caused a giant security breach and was struck down as unconstitutional by its Supreme Court,” she noted.

Thankfully this Lords report is only intended as advice for Parliament, and is not the official first step on any new legislative process.