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[This version is provided by http://www.cyber-rights.org]

Yaman Akdeniz, "Anonymous Now," Index on Censorship, The Privacy Issue, 2000 (3), June, pp 57-62.

Anonymity is socially useful and has been a vital tool for the preservation of political speech and discourse throughout history. Therefore, anonymity as a concept is closely related to free speech and to privacy. The Internet boom in the 1990s created new opportunities for communications and for discussion. Internet technology allows genuinely anonymous communication, and this can be used for many purposes; socially useful, but also criminal.

Political activists, human rights campaigners and organisations, and dissident movements in repressive regimes increasingly rely on anonymous communications for communicating human rights abuses in their countries. Furthermore, users can engage in anonymous whistleblowing, receive counselling or engage in all forms of discussions.

There are many global organisations dealing with human rights abuses, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who use the Internet to communicate with their members or with dissident groups. Before governments can suppress the dissemination of critical writings, and reports, the authors can distribute their work outside repressive regimes. It is well known that the Burmese dissidents and the Mexican Zapatistas use the Internet to communicate with the rest of the world - this isn't incidental to their work, it's a key aspect of their strategy. It is critical and vital for human rights activists, political dissidents, and whistleblowers throughout the world to facilitate confidential communications free from intrusion. Anonymity and the use of strong encryption tools can help to preserve and expand political discourse, and the dissemination of information related to human rights abuses.

The use of cryptographic tools and anonymity are essential and powerful tools. Cryptographic techniques not only conceal information, they can also authenticate it. For example, recipients of electronic alerts, such as those sent by Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Tibetan Government in Exile, can ensure that the alerts have not been altered by those wishing to disrupt the group’s activities. Users of the Critical Path AIDS Project’s website, users of Stop Prisoner Rape ('SPR') in the USA, and Samaritans in the UK rely on anonymity. Many members of SPR’s mailing list would not be involved were it not for guaranteed anonymity, such is the stigma of prisoner rape. It is vital that this kind of user can gain access to information while remaining anonymous, and it should be their right to do so in this context.

Internet privacy activists have developed experimental anonymous re-mailer programs that address these concerns in respect to free speech and personal liberty. An anonymous re-mailer is simply a computer service that forwards e-mails or files to other addresses over the Internet. But the re-mailer also strips off the 'header' part of the messages, which shows where they came from and who sent them. The most untraceable re-mailers (e.g. MixMaster) use public key cryptography which allows unprecedented anonymity both to groups who wish to communicate in complete privacy and to whistleblowers who have reason to fear persecution if their identity became known. According to Patrick Ball of the science and human rights programme at the American Association for the Advancement of Science: 'When messages are resent from a truly anonymous re-mailer, the header information is set either to a deliberately misleading address, or to randomly generated characters. There is no record of the connection between the sending address and the destination address. For greater security, many users program messages to pass through five to twenty re-mailers before the message arrives at its final destination. This technique, known as chaining, assures greater security than sending through a single re-mailer. Even if some re-mailers keep secret records of their transactions, a single honest re-mailing system will protect the user. One disadvantage is that unless the sender has identified herself in the body of the message, the recipient has no way to reply to an anonymously sent message.' (ACLU v. Miller, 1997)

One of the best-known anonymous remailers on the Internet, anon.penet.fi, was offered for more than three years by Johann Helsingius. Among its users were Amnesty International, the Samaritans, and the UK's West Mercia Police who used anon.penet.fi as part of their 'Crimestoppers' anonymous informing scheme

In Mrs. McIntyre in Cyberspace: Some thoughts on anonymity, Jonathan Wallace writes 'I may have a good idea you will not consider if you know my name. Or I may individually fear retaliation if my identity is revealed. Anonymity is therefore good, because it encourages greater diversity of speech.' A good example of this is Anonymizer.com, an online project founded by Lance Cottrell, the author of world’s most secure anonymous remailer, Mixmaster. Anonymizer.com offers a forum for anonymous discussions and also provides anonymous web surfing. Anonymizer’s Kosovo project allowed individuals to report on conditions and human rights violations from within the war zone, without fear of government retaliation.

Online anonymity is therefore important both to free speech and privacy just as anonymity and anonymous publishing have been for thousands of years in the offline world. It is essential for participation in online equivalents of 'Alcoholics Anonymous' and similar groups. Individuals have a desire and a right to this kind of privacy that should not be abridged for the pursuit of vaguely defined infractions.

Yet this is exactly the plan of governments and law enforcement agencies worldwide. US Attorney General Janet Reno said earlier this year: 'While the Internet and other information technologies are bringing enormous benefits to society, they also provide new opportunities for criminal behaviour.' Although anonymity has important benefits for human rights, anonymity is often tied with cyber-crimes, or it is claimed that anonymity would allow criminals to use the Internet without the possibility of detection. Such well-publicised law enforcement fears include the of anonymous communications for hate mail, child pornography, and fraud. A White House report 'The Electronic Frontier: The Challenge of Unlawful Conduct Involving the Use of the Internet' published in March found that: 'individuals who wish to use a computer as a tool to facilitate unlawful activity may find that the Internet provides a vast, inexpensive, and potentially anonymous way to commit unlawful acts, such as fraud, the sale or distribution of child pornography, the sale of guns or drugs or other regulated substances without regulatory protections, and the unlawful distribution of computer software or other creative material protected by intellectual property rights.' Elsewhere the report claims that: 'law enforcement agencies are faced with the need to evaluate and to determine the source, typically on very short notice, of anonymous e-mails that contain bomb threats against a given building or threats to cause serious bodily injury.'

Although the report recognised the desire for anonymity for the legitimate needs described above, it describes anonymous e-mail accounts as: 'the proverbial double-edged sword … such services can plainly frustrate legitimate law enforcement efforts.' The report concludes that: 'Internet-based activities should be treated consistently with physical world activities and in a technology-neutral way to further important societal goals (such as the deterrence and punishment of those who commit money laundering). National policies concerning anonymity and accountability on the Internet thus need to be developed in a way that takes account of privacy, authentication, and public safety concerns.'

However, it is not at all clear how the US government plans to address law enforcement needs while preserving the rights of individual Internet users. There have been US attempts to pass legislation that would bar anonymous communications in the past. In 1997 the ACLU challenged a Georgia law on the grounds that it restricted free speech on the Internet. ACLU and others stated that the Georgia law was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad because it barred online users from using pseudonyms or communicating anonymously over the Internet.

The ACLU responded to this latest report by stating that: 'anonymity on the Internet is not a thorny issue; it is a Constitutional right. The United States Supreme Court held that the Constitution grants citizens the right to speak anonymously.' Moreover, the ACLU also warned that 'an end to Internet anonymity would chill free expression in cyberspace and strip away one of the key structural privacy protections enjoyed by Internet users.'

Those who call for the prohibition of anonymous remailers or other restrictions on anonymity fail to recognise the damage which would occur to freedom of expression online.

The European Convention on Human Rights recognises freedom of expression as a right and also recognise the circumstances in which it may be legitimately suppressed: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right should include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers ... The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security … for the prevention of disorder or crime … for the protection of the reputation or rights of others …

The importance of anonymity as a facilitator of free speech has been affirmed by the European Court of Human Rights (Goodwin v UK, 1996). The Court recognised that the press has a vital watchdog role in a healthy democratic society and that this function could be undermined if journalists are not allowed to keep confidential the sources of their information. In this case, the Court concluded that the application of the law of contempt to a recalcitrant journalist was not necessary where the subject of the damaging story had already obtained an injunction against publication. It is not clear that the same level of protection of anonymity would be afforded by the European Court to the idle gossip of non-press speakers, but anonymous 'political speech' would certainly deserve higher protection.

Moreover, there may also be instances where Internet postings may lead to persecution if the identity of the individual is known. The Supreme Court in NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 1958) stated that: 'inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association".

Apart from facilitating freedom of expression, anonymity also enables users to prevent surveillance and monitoring of their activities on the Internet not only from commercial companies but also from government intrusion. Total anonymity may be possible by the use of such privacy enhancing technologies such as 'Freedom: Absolute Privacy Protection', (www.freedom.net), which works seamlessly alongside your Internet browser and other Internet applications. This useful piece of software gives total control to the user for the protection of his/her personal information and personal security. The development of such tools should be encouraged and future technologies should be privacy-friendly to protect basic human rights, whatever law enforcement concerns may be.

Whether the importance of anonymity on the Internet will be recognised by future regulatory initiatives remains to be seen. Right now it is legislation that threatens online privacy, and technology that protects it. Privacy software tools and services are multiplying; you can be as private as you want to be, just be careful where you click.