The federal government is considering requiring identification checks for the use of social media platforms as part of its broader big tech crackdown, a proposal which has been rejected by a range of experts.
The final report from a government-led parliamentary inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence included a recommendation that government legislate a requirement that for users to open or maintain a social media platform, they must provide 100 points of identification.
The committee said this would be the same as when an individual opens a mobile phone account or buys a mobile SIM card.
“Social media platforms must provide those identifying details when requested by the eSafety Commissioner, law enforcement or as directed by a court,” the report said.
“The government should consider regulating to enable law enforcement agencies to access a platform’s end-to-end encrypted data, by warrant, in matters involving a threat to the physical or mental wellbeing of an individual or in cases of national security.”
Several government MPs have recently raised concerns with cyber abuse and trolling, and the anonymity that social media platforms grant their users.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is reportedly considering tougher rules for big tech firms as part of the May federal budget and has indicated these will include efforts to combat cyber bullying.
“We’re living in a society in which respect is degrading. And if we want to see more respect in our community, we’ve all got to practise it more,” Mr Morrison said.
“We’ve got to build the respect again. And one of the key degraders of respect in our country is social media. I can tell you a big part of my response to this will be ongoing work in the area of e-safety and on social media.”
New Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews has also said she wants to combat online anonymity.
“There’s a level of anonymity in social media that is concerning. People are not making comments under their own name and they can hide. I don’t think that they should be able to hide,” Ms Andrews told ABC RN last week.
But the proposal is misguided and potentially dangerous, and it’s especially disappointing that it has become the main focus from a significant and important report, Electronic Frontiers Australia chair Lyndsey Jackson said.
“It’s certainly problematic that identity and anonymity online comes as a quick fix. It’s come in a climate where politicians are very uncomfortable with how much scrutiny their own backyard is being put under,” Ms Jackson told InnovationAus.
“It’s quite convenient for a lot of people to reduce anonymity online. From a practical position, giving 100 points of identification over to social media platforms, even what is a social media platform and where you draw the line on those, certainly there are a lot of platforms where you would not want them to have all that data on you,” she said.
“It’s not like any of these platforms have systems that people can trust to hand over all of this information.”
The identification proposal is a “red herring”, and attention should instead be focused on the report’s other important recommendations, Ms Jackson said.
“It is worth nothing that this has come from this inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence, and the report makes a range of recommendations that are probably going to shift the needle and create improvements a whole lot more than the social media identification one,” she said.
The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology director Peter Lewis said there should be more obligations for users of social media platforms but handing over identification data to Big Tech firms is not the answer.
“Requiring users to provide proof of identity to the online platforms is not the solution – as the latest hack of Facebook illustrates the platforms cannot be trusted with user data,” Mr Lewis said.
“Moreover, giving global corporations that base their business model on extracting and reselling users’ data access to legal users’ identities would be like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank,” he said.
A better approach would be to introduce legislation that would force social media firms to identify users who are engaging in bullying or unsafe behaviour, Mr Lewis said.
“An alternate approach would be to create an equivalent to a social media AVO – where people who are subject to bullying, trolling and other unsafe behaviour could secure a legally enforceable order to the platforms to identify, suspend and delete accounts,” he said.
“While contact on digital media is already covered by AVOs, they only target the user and not the platform. Where a Social Media AVO is granted, the onus would be on the platform to ensure a safe environment for the claimant and taking legal responsibility for any ensuing damage to the applicant.”
The concept of requiring identification to create a social media platform has been regularly proposed, and criticised, around the world.