This paper will examine the issue of anonymity on the internet, first providing a background on how anonymity services work and why these services came into existence. In this discussion, I will limit the scope of my subject to the services provided by anonymous and pseudonymous remailers and posting sites which are currently used by thousands of people each day to send email and post to internet newsgroups. Although the issues of digital cash and cryptography have close ties to anonymity, these subjects will not be discussed here. After a background on anonymity has been provided, I will go on to present arguments for and against anonymity on the internet and discuss a number of famous conflicts involving anonymity on the internet. I will then present some specific barriers to on-line anonymity, including attacks by net citizens, concerns of system administrators, and legal issues. Finally, based on this discussion, I will show that anonymity on the internet provides a vital service and enhances freedom of expression and that most negative affects of anonymity can be minimized by following a few guidelines related to how anonymous services are provided and used.
The Helsingius server, which is called penet.fi and run by Johan "Julf" Helsingius, is one of the most stable global anonymity servers. Julf Helsingius' original impetus to provide a global anonymity service was his desire to prove that censorship on the internet is impossible because there is always a technological solution which can circumvent the problem. The site is based on scripts and C code which was written by K. Kleinpaste and was originally intended to serve only Scandinavia. Helsingius eventually expanded to worldwide service due to a flood of international requests. This server, which is one of the most popular, currently has over 200,000 registered users. Although penet.fi has undergone numerous temporary shutdowns and has been involved in a recent police investigation (discussed in section 6), it has survived for over 3 years. Penet.fi and similar servers are currently the primary anonymity servers on the internet today. According to Raph Levien, graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley who tracks the anonymity providers, up to 15,000 email messages a day are sent through anonymous remailing services. A list of some of the current anonymity services can be found at the University of California at Berkeley.
"I had been posting to a nontechnical misc newsgroup about an intimate topic for which I felt I required privacy. I have received immeasurable help from the people in that news group....Please, folks, believe me, I *need* this service. Please consider my point of view and permit firstname.lastname@example.org to turn the service back on."Doctors who are members of the on-line community often encourage their patients to connect with others and form support groups on issues about which they do not feel comfortable speaking about publicly. It is essential to be able to express certain opinions without revealing your true identity. One relevant example of anonymity in the real world is the debate over Caller ID on telephones. A great deal of people were extremely disturbed that the person on the receiving end of a telephone call would know the identity of the caller. People had taken for granted that they could be anonymous if they wanted and were distressed at the idea of that anonymity being taken away. Many net users feel the same way about on-line anonymity.
Anonymity is extremely effective in promoting freedom of expression. Julf Helsingius asserts that anonymity is beneficial because it gives people an outlet for their opinions, even controversial ones. He feels that it is "good to bring out things like that in daylight because that actually allows you to ...start processing it, see how people react to it, and so on." This may have sort of a cathartic effect in that it allows people to get their feelings out without physically hurting people of other cultures, races, etc. Additionally, anonymity hinders some methods of controlling the actions of other people. This is an additional argument in the usefulness of anonymity in the protection of freedom of expression.
There are many long-standing precedents for anonymity in publishing. The responsibility of a journalists not to reveal their sources is recognized almost universally. Many authors write under pen-names and there are still some cases where the true identity of the author has never been discovered. Even the Federalist Papers were published under a pseudonym. Most newspapers publish letters to the editor and help columns and allow the letters to be anonymous or signed with a pseudonym and many newspaper articles are merely credited to "AP Newswire". Additionally, anonymous peer reviews of proposals and articles is common in academic circles.
An additional argument for anonymity is that it is a part of society and unavoidable. Anonymous communication can be achieved in real life by sending an unsigned letter or making an anonymous phone call. From the large number of users who take advantage of anonymous services on the internet, it can be seen that these services are truly necessary and fill a specific need. The availability of the technology to set up such an anonymous server also makes the elimination of such servers virtually impossible; as soon as one is shut down, another one is created. The current availability of such services eliminates the need to forge an identity or use another person's identity to correspond anonymously. People on the net are anonymous to some degree anyway because of the inherent characteristics of the medium. Services providing additional anonymity are only expanding on this feature of the net.
Pseudonymity comes in useful in that it allows users to send mail to pseudonymous users in response to their mail or post. People are able to respond to emails that they like or dislike or that they find offensive or disruptive. This makes the pseudonymous user more responsible for his or her actions than the completely anonymous user. They are still accountable for their actions on the net but are protected from "real world" damage.
Abolishing anonymity servers is not necessary since the technology exists to produce kill files which allow users to choose for themselves what they consider offensive. This allows individuals to filter out anonymous posts and emails which they dislike, while still reaping the benefits afforded by anonymous services. Although some people will automatically discount any anonymous postings, other people don't care who wrote it, as long as it is intelligent or funny. Still others use anonymity specifically to allow their opinions to be judged on their merit, rather than by the name attached to them.
Some people argue that the use of on-line anonymity in these cases of abusive or hurtful activity are especially bad because people are more likely to believe things that they see in print, as opposed to something they hear in an anonymous phone call or conversation. The instantaneous means by which this printed information can be distributed around the world also gives many people cause for concern. Additionally, it is almost impossible to control illegal activity which is perpetrated or discussed anonymously over the internet since, in most cases, police are not able to track the offender down. The recent case involving penet.fi and the Finnish police is one exception, but this instance is in the extreme minority of cases where the identity of an anonymous user who has used the internet for criminal activity has not remained secret.
Some users value free speech so much that they have no problems with the hatespeech which a minority of users profess in anonymous posts and emails. They do, however, object to the fact that these users use anonymity as a shield for their beliefs. Some people use the existence of this problem to argue that anonymity is only needed to avoid retribution due to lack of understanding in the on-line society. They feel that dealing with societal problems which make people feel the need to express their opinions anonymously is a better solution than sanctioning these problems by allowing the existence of anonymous services. Additionally, many of the people who cause the intolerant conditions in some areas of the net which cause people to feel the need to express their opinions anonymously are the same people that abuse the anonymous services by using them to attack their opponents with impunity. There is a possibility that this problem could be diminished if societal problems were dealt with directly instead of discussed anonymously. This argument loses significant power, however, due to the fact that these problems have persisted for centuries in real-life society as well. Rude, inappropriate and offensive emails and posts were present on the internet long before anonymity servers were created. The best way do deal with rude people is to ignore them, and not to eliminate a service which has many benefits to the net. As one user mentioned: "It is akin to ...closing down the highway system because a few people speed."
Some users agree that anonymity is useful for some newsgroups or discussions on sensitive topics, but they object to the fact that anonymity servers provide anonymity for everybody on every newsgroup. They feel that each newsgroup should decide whether or not they want anonymous posts and then set up a server designed specifically for that group. A number of newsgroups already function like this, but other newsgroups that object to anonymous posts are still subjected to them because users are able to use global services such as penet.fi. Many users feel that the introduction of such services has changed the culture of the net.
After 2 anonymous messages were canceled using the ARMM program, an anonymous user called an8785 retaliated by posting Depew's address of employment and the name and phone number of his supervisor on the net. He told users that he had done this in response to Depew's censorship and urged users to complain to Depew's supervisor. Helsingius eventually deactivated the account of anonymous user an8785, but never revealed his identity. About a month later, Depew released a revised version of the ARMM program on the Helsingius server, which some people felt was in response to the fact that Helsingius refused to reveal the identity of an8785. The revised program severely backfired, both technically and politically. The software had a bug which caused it to post hundreds of messages on various newsgroups, causing a few mailservers to crash and generally making many net users angry. This situation caused a great deal of outcry over attempts at censoring and policing the net. It also caused many users to publicly express their support for Helsingius' policy of absolute anonymity. Both of these issues are extremely important in the ongoing debate about what sort of legal restrictions should be put on the net and what types of legislation will be created for this purpose (this will be discussed in section 7).
On February 2, lawyers for the Church of Scientology also contacted the operators of several anonymity services, including Julf Helsingius, and demanded that they stop further anonymous posts to the newsgroups or legal action would ensue. After Helsingius made it clear that he would not voluntarily reveal the identity of the user in question, he was informed that the Finnish police were being contacted via Interpol. On February 8, Finnish police informed Helsingius that if he did not reveal the identity of the anonymous user, they would serve him with a search warrant to seize his entire server with the identities of all of the users who utilize his anonymity service. The Finnish police used the fact that the anonymous user was suspected of "unauthorized use of a computer" as the grounds for their search and the confiscation of the information from Julf Helsingius. Faced with the choice between revealing the identity of only one of his users or all of them, Helsingius reluctantly supplied the Finnish police with the name of the anonymous user involved in the CoS case. On February 14, Helsingius is informed that the criminal investigation in the CoS has been dropped.[14,20,21] In this case, Helsingius was forced to choose between protecting a user who relied on their service for anonymity at a time when anonymity was crucial and protecting the records of all of the other users of the system. The most practical choice was made and Helsingius intends to continue his anonymity service, but it will be interesting to see if any changes are made in the penet.fi system as a result of this choice. Additionally, the fact that complete anonymity on the internet was compromised by the authorities brings up many legal questions about the future of anonymity on the internet. This issue will be discussed in section 7.
The validity of the concerns of system administrators can be demonstrated in the civil court case of Stratton vs. Prodigy. An anonymous user of Prodigy accused Stratton Oakmont Inc., a New York investment bank, of acting fraudulently and illegally in one of its initial public offerings. As a result of this anonymous statement, Stratton filed a $200 million libel suit against Prodigy and the anonymous user. Stratton considers the network responsible for shielding the user with anonymity and stated: "If Prodigy is in the publishing business, then it opens itself up to libel charges." Cases such as this one intimidate numerous system administrators and result in the shutdown of many anonymity servers each year.
Sometimes system administrators try to block anonymity service in their areas by using tactics other than just trying to shut the anonymity server down. An example of such a scheme was the famous case involving the ARMM program which tried to censor anonymous messages and remove them from newsgroups. Although this program backfired and generated much opposition to censorship on the net, the possibility of future use of such programs is not eliminated. Any system administrator with enough technical knowledge to create a better program of this kind may be able to effectively censor any anonymous messages at their site.
US legislation is sure to examine the subject of on-line anonymity as laws slowly begin to catch up with important issues regarding the internet. One daunting look into current legal cases, however, seems to paint a grim picture for anonymity on the internet. Justice Scalia recently stated in a ruling on McIntyre vs. Ohio Elections Commission that he found anonymity generally dishonorable. He wrote that "It facilitates wrong by eliminating accountability, which is ordinarily the very purpose of the anonymity." He also felt that creating legal protection for anonymous communication without a reason to expect "threats, harassment or reprisals seems to me a distortion of the past that will lead to a coarsening of the future".[22,23] Additionally, the Supreme Court of California recently upheld a state law prohibiting anonymous mass political mailings by political candidates. The fact that this case involves limiting anonymous speech, which is strongly protected by the First Amendment, does not bode well for media such as on-line communications which would have inherently less protection.
The recent clash between Finnish police and penet.fi, the longest running anonymity server, is bound to inspire many net citizens who prize their anonymity to push for legislation, in Finland and around the world, to protect this precious resource and make it harder to legally raid anonymity servers. The recent court ruling earlier this year in the dispute between Netcom and The Church of Scientology which held that network administrators should not be responsible for all of the traffic through their server, including anonymous messages, shows that defenders of the right to anonymity do have the support of some members of the judicial system. On the other hand, the rise in the number of criminals who have joined the on-line community and are using the internet to discuss or participate in criminal activity is sure to inspire legislators to push for stricter laws on the limitations of anonymity in cases where illegal activity has occurred. Companies are also beginning to fight against anonymity on the internet because they fear that it will undermine long-established laws designed to protect the ownership of information and control its dissemination. It will be interesting to watch this battle play itself out in the coming years.
There has been a significant push on the internet to force anonymity providers to reveal the identity of users who have committed criminal or severely abusive acts. Julf Helsingius opposes this idea and feels that he does not have the right to judge what is right and wrong. Additionally, the international scope of his service means that the concept of illegal activities is not universal. He uses the example of pornographic images to prove his point. Posting pornographic images on the internet is considered illegal in many countries, while it is perfectly legal in others. He feels that it is not his place to draw the line on these issues. Additionally, in many countries which have entered the on-line community, writings which are critical of the government, such as the exposure of human rights abuses in China and elsewhere, are illegal. The international nature of the net simply makes it impossible to enforce the laws of every country individually. It is quite possible that on-line anonymity will be reduced as soon as US legislation catches up with internet activities unless the digital community shows that it can regulate itself. One way to do this, is to draw up a set of guidelines on the use of anonymity services and stick to them. A very good example of such a set of rules can be found in a document written by L. Detweiler called Anonymity on the Internet. Examples of some of the most important rules that must be followed in order to discourage legislators from stepping in are as follows: