MPs in trouble: PM urged to enact “David’s Law” over Sir David Amess’ murder

November 4, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

In the wake of the murder of MP Sir David Amess, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing calls to “toughen up” the Online Safety Bill currently being scrutinised by Parliament.

What does this mean?

Sir David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend in Essex, was stabbed to death on Friday 15 October 2021 while holding a constituency surgery. In a two-hour parliamentary session held by the House of Commons to pay tribute to the Southend MP, allies of Amess demanded for amendments to be made to the upcoming Online Safety Bill. Amess’ friend and neighbouring MP Mark Francois stated that David had recently become “increasingly concerned” about the “toxic environment” of online abuse that MPs operate in. The police are yet to find a connection between Amess’ killing and the online targeting of MPs, arresting a young male at the scene with suspected links to Islamist extremism.  The Online Safety Bill, still in its draft form, places a heavy emphasis on protecting children as well as adults from a variety of online risks. It provides that US tech firms will be held accountable for the role their sites play in sponsoring harmful content, facing fines for a failure to comply with the new rules. However, in the aftermath of Amess’ murder, MPs are pushing for the Bill to go further with the introduction “David’s Law”, a measure to ban anonymous social media accounts. Home Secretary Priti Patel has indicated that she is debating requiring social media sites to retain the identities of anyone posting online which could be handed over to the police for further investigation if the content is harmful or abusive.

What's the big picture effect?

Amess’ murder comes just five years after the death of Labour MP Jo Cox, killed by a far-right extremist in 2016. These events have seen an outpour of MPs coming forward with concerns for their own safety. Sir David himself had even directly expressed such concerns in a book he wrote last year where he disclosed that he had frequently been sent anonymous online abuse as he called for an urgent update in the current law.

While the motives of the MPs campaigning for ending individuals’ right to anonymity are honourable, their practical implications of such a measure are concerning. Removing the right to online anonymity could place many individuals at risk such as whistle-blowers, pro-democracy dissidents in authoritarian states and victims of domestic abuse. For activist groups such as the Women of Belarus and pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, online anonymity can be lifesaving. Hiding behind pseudonyms allows such individuals to alert others of malpractice and criminal behaviour. Without the benefit of anonymity, restrictions are placed on the freedom of speech of these groups, forced to use their real identities and risking exposure to persecution or harm.

Furthermore, studies have proven that many online trolls actually have few qualms about shedding their cloaks of anonymity when sending abuse. An investigation by Twitter in the aftermath of the abuse of England footballers after the Euros 2020 found that ID verification “would have been unlikely” to stop such abusers as 99% of their accounts were not anonymous.

The parliamentary committee currently scrutinising the Bill is expected to report its findings to the government in December this year. It remains to be seen whether it is possible for a balance to be struck between the right of individuals’ freedom of speech and the right of MPs to feel safe.

Report written by Lucy Reynolds

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