Give Facebook our passport? It won’t fix the problem

AUSTRALIA – (WARSOOR) – A proposal to force Australians to provide 100 points of identification to social media platforms in order to “open or maintain” an account was tabled in parliament by a joint parliamentary committee last week, as part of an inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence. This was followed by reports that more than 7 million Australians have had their Facebook data – including addresses, names, mobile numbers, previous addresses, and dates of birth – leaked to the dark web. Facebook said the leak was old and stemmed from a problem that had been found and fixed in 2019.

The leaked Facebook data is searchable by a purpose-made Telegram bot for anyone who wishes to use it. If you are a violent ex-partner wanting to harass or stalk your victim and you don’t know what their current address or phone number is, this is the perfect resource for you.

Given Facebook’s history of data breaches, and given the risk it might actually make the situation worse, should we be providing Facebook with our passport or drivers licence? At this point I think the answer should be a resounding no – and parliament should reject the proposal.

The assumption behind the proposal, No 30 among 88 different proposals to be considered in their entirety, is that if Australians were made to identify themselves to platforms like Facebook, they would engage in less abusive and trolling behaviour.

This is despite complaints that one of the committee members, Andrew Laming MP, harassed at least two women online using his real name and via his official MP Facebook account this year – one woman allegedly being left suicidal as a result. Laming apologised for this two weeks ago.

It is far from clear that providing identity documents to platforms would stop or even significantly stem the growth of abuse, trolling, or stalking and harassment on social media platforms. Though there is certainly an argument to be had about authenticating users to deter abuse, we are not remotely at a place yet where we can have it.

Social media platforms have proven time and again that they cannot protect the data they have

There are many implications in terms of free speech and digital rights that need to be considered first: anonymity is essential for many domestic violence victims for example, and in some countries anonymity is essential if people are to speak on the internet at all.

These issues would need to be unpacked before we considered removing anonymity from social media anyway –but definitely before we handed Facebook the task of verifying our identity.

Social media platforms have proven time and again that they cannot protect the data they have, let alone facilitate identity verification for 11 million Australian Facebook users. The latest Facebook data breach is evidence of this, if evidence was needed.

They are not the right custodians for our identity documents.

ESafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant says “having social media companies capture all of these points of identity without proper safeguards – and a proper policy regulatory scheme in place – risks creating a honey pot of sensitive data. Plus, how do you go about ‘re-identifying’ billions of users?” For Inman Grant, you need to look at the whole ecosystem.

There are some things that can be done now to stem the flow of online abuse though, and many of the recommendations made in the committee’s report may help if implemented.

In particular, making platforms more responsive to reports of abuse and increasing clarity around a platform’s obligation to remove that content would be helpful.

At the moment, if users feel that they are being stalked, harassed, doxxed, or otherwise abused on a platform like Facebook they must go via a wall of click-wrap options to report each post, then wait for a decision on whether or not that specific content violates “community guidelines”. Sometimes these decisions are made by an algorithm, sometimes by a human.

There is no way to get abusive content taken down immediately. It feels like all these drop-down boxes are expressly designed to deflect any immediate action by the platform: they don’t want the responsibility.

The best thing you can do if you experience online abuse right now is report it to the police or the eSafety commissioner.

But we should also be requiring platforms to respond quickly to reports of abuse, and ideally provide a way to do this that doesn’t involve a hall of click-wrap mirrors.

Accepting a proposal that would make Australians give their passport to Facebook won’t fix the problem and will arguably make it worse.

We must make the platforms responsible for what they publish – and responsible for taking it down quickly.