What’s in a name? A forward view of anonymity online

Today Demos launches a new paper What’s in a name? calling for a radical new approach to how we protect our identities online.

Policymakers and other public figures are increasingly vocal on the importance of balancing the benefits and drawbacks of online anonymity. This paper clearly outlines how online anonymity should be understood. It presents a model through which future settlements on online anonymity can be tested, presented in a way that we hope is useful to both technologists and policymakers.

The paper proposes a three-fold test for how identity verification should function online in liberal democracies. Future solutions must:

  1. Protect internet users’ ability to choose anonymity online, and emphasise its importance in preserving freedom of expression.
  2. Allow accountable institutions tasked with preserving security to exercise their powers effectively.
  3. Ensure users are able to fully consent to their identities being known by other third-parties.

What’s in a name? proposes the creation of a British Identity Corporation (BIDC), a new independent body to verify identities online. The body would allow people more control over how they’re identified as they travel across the internet, whilst also providing a method to help law enforcement tackle persistent online harms more effectively, in a way open to public scrutiny.

This paper is the first in a series of discussion papers this year as part of the Good Web Project, a programme designed to ensure the future of the Internet is compatible with liberal democracy. GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence, cyber and security agency, commissioned the independent research as part of its continued efforts, alongside government, academia and civic society groups, to explore what a better, safer internet could look like.

Commenting on the new report Josh Smith, Senior Researcher at Demos and co-author of the discussion paper, said:

“On today’s internet, it is near-impossible to know who can connect your actions to your identity; people are being denied meaningful control over their privacy online. The status quo is untenable, and we need to start considering bold ideas which will help build a better web. Demos’ Good Web project is about starting these crucial conversations.

As suggested in today’s report, creating a British Identity Corporation would not only allow people meaningful control over who can identify them online, but also provide a powerful, transparent method for tackling serious online abuse.”

Read the full discussion paper here.