May 23, 1997

CAN ANONYMITY MAKE US FREE?

by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—The allure of speaking without revealing your name, sex, or race attracts many people to the Internet. But this license, like the practice of exchanging uncensored pictures and copyrighted material, has recently been challenged by various government actions. Anonymity has become yet another skirmish in the worldwide battle to determine the role of law in the new digital media.

On May 5, the Commissioner of Canada Elections notified Ottawa resident Krishna Bera that he was violating election law in displaying a Web page that urged a vote for the Green party. Canadian law, in a well-meaning attempt to keep heavily funded parties from dominating election advertising, places limits on how much parties can spend and facilitates enforcement by requiring every ad to bear the name of the sponsoring person or organization. Bera, a member of Electronic Frontier Canada, put up his page deliberately to challenge the law and defend the right to anonymity.

How can you hide your identity online? The most elementary starting point is a pseudonymous email address like prophet@well.com. The name “prophet,” used on postings to newsgroups and mailing lists, disguises your identity to casual readers. But any friend, relation, or business associate who communicates with you (and anyone who can pry the information out of the well.com administrators) will recognize you.

It is technically possible to generate a fake return address (commercial bulk email users, or “spammers,” do it all the time) but even these can be traced with the aid of the service providers through whose systems the mail passed. Another step, the use of an anonymous remailer, is necessary to protect the privacy of people who want to participate in sensitive forums, like those for sober alcoholics and sexual abuse victims.

An anonymous remailer is a system that you send mail to, and that strips off identifying information before forwarding the message to the desired recipient. Some mailers discard the identifying information, making it nearly impossible to trace the original sender. Others keep track of who sent each mail message, accept responses, and route them back to the originator.

One can debate just how anonymous a Web site can be. Certainly, the Commissioner of Canada Elections had no trouble finding Krishna Bera. The name of his site—http://www.achilles.net/~kebera/anon/vote-green.html—shows that it’s hosted on a computer named www.achilles.net. Even if the Achilles Internet company didn’t put up their own Web page, I could find out how to contact them simply by entering a command called “whois” on my Internet-connected computer. Achilles Internet does not advertise who uses the account kebera, but the government could easily ask them. Like an anonymous remailer, a Web site can be forwarded through a friendly site, but that just adds an extra step to the research process. So the position of the Canadian government is unnecessarily heavy-handed; they do not have to strip away the benefits of anonymity simply to enforce campaign finance laws.

Another way to protect an anonymous Internet service is to mirror it: this means that a friendly administrator on another system copies and displays the Web page. As I am writing, 29 sites (including mine) have agreed to mirror Bera’s page.

In the U.S., the right to anonymous has been reaffirmed in conventional media by two famous court rulings: Talley v. California (1962) and McIntyre v. Ohio (1995). While the immediate subject of both rulings was the right of people to distribute leaflets, the courts made it clear that they value the right to anonymity in general. One poorly thought-through law in Georgia makes pseudonymous names and other forms of anonymity on the Internet illegal, but it is being disputed in court.

The advantages of anonymity are clear. But what about its dangers? I maintain that they are theoretically present but not likely to be a serious enough problem to justify a ban on anonymity.

The most frequent worry aired in the press is that anonymous pornography can flood the Internet. To stave off such criticism, the most famous anonymous remailer (the late and lamented anon.penet.fi) blocked out binary files to make sure that it could not be used for pornographic pictures. This did not prevent certain pandering journalists from falsely accusing it of being responsible for pornography on the Internet. Yet most people distributing pornography want to be paid for it. They cannot set up a channel to receive payments without leaving a trail that police can follow if necessary.

It would, however, be useful to have a digital cash or “e-cash” system so that people can make purchases without leaving a record of what they bought. Several such systems have been proposed, and would bring welcome anonymity to Internet financial transactions. (Actually, current systems usually leave an audit trail, which compromises the privacy of the users.) The basis of such systems is an online bank. Customers buy electronic tokens, each representing a few cents or a few dollars. The customer then tells the bank whenever he or she wants to buy something. The bank deducts the necessary tokens from the customer’s account and ensures that the seller receives the money, but there is no record of any transaction between the seller and buyer.

Some worry that digital cash, if it becomes widespread, will lead to an explosion of money laundering. But already, under the current financial system, people with money to hide seem to have no trouble finding others to help them. Witness the recent international difficulties in digging up money stolen from Holocaust victims, or taken out of Zaire/Congo by former dictator Mobutu.

Most other abuses of online anonymity, similarly, can also be promulgated through traditional means. Death threats, for instance, can be equally hard to trace when delivered by phone or mail as when delivered by the Internet. Hate speech is facilitated by the online medium, but in most countries the hate groups operate fairly freely anyway. The public has a lot of work to do in stopping hate groups from engaging in actual physical violence, before they should worry about preventing them from spouting their beliefs online.

People sometimes fear that libelous material can be distributed anonymously, leaving no one to sue. (This danger is the flip side of honest whistle-blowing, which most people would agree is a socially valuable use of anonymity.) But such misuses are only as effective as the gullibility of recipient allows. All whistle-blowing should be checked by an authoritative expert before the public believes the charges.

The use of anonymous distribution for copyright infringement particularly worries some businesses. Indeed, the anon.penet.fi remailer finally shut down because of the accusation of copyright infringement; the Church of Scientology claimed that a former member was using the remailer to redistribute secret Church documents and obtained a court order forcing the system administrator, Johan Helsingius, to reveal the member’s identity. This discouraging event led him to shut down the system on the basis that he could no longer promise anonymity. But how often would such a situation occur? How many religious organizations sell their insights to initiates for thousands of dollars and require secrecy for their documents?

The right to anonymity is well-established in the U.S., though not in Canada; the virtual world can make this right even stronger. The risks of anonymity, while worth keeping in mind, should not prevent us from defending it.


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