Anonymity and Free Speech on the Internet

The Internet has had a place for anonymous speech since its earliest days. This is something for which I am eternally thankful. When I first got on the net in the late 1980s, I was using the Usenet forums and mailing lists. For most of that time, no one really cared who I was, just what I was writing. As an 18 year old, this had a profound effect on my development as I was able to talk and argue with all sorts of people without us being overly focused on reputation or “real world” repercussions. As they used to say, on the Internet, no one knows that you’re a dog.

This anonymity also gave me the freedom to be a bit of a young prick but quite a few people that I met then, almost 20 years ago, are people that I still know and am friends with today. One of them is a co-blogger on the upcoming Buddhist group blog that I’m organizing. It also had a strong influence on my spiritual and intellectual development as I could speak to people without the worry that it would get back to my conservative family or to haunt me later. Many of my posts from that era are online, actually, but because we all used happy pirate nicknames, unless you know the variety of names or e-mail addresses that I used then, you would not be able to connect those with the upright citizen Al Billings of today. When I look at some of those old postings, I don’t think of that as a bad thing at times.

There is information circulating today that some people want to change this. There is an “IP Traceback” drafting group, named Q6/17, out there. This is associated with the United Nations but has strong ties to Chinese nationals involved in PRC state-run enterprises. Additionally, it looks like the United States’ National Security Agency is attending their meeting next week as well. Details on what they are up to are not clear as they are refusing to comment or release documents but, as the article discusses, there is pretty strong evidence (even in the proposal names) that they are trying to bring about the end of anonymity on the Internet.

Now, anonymity on the net is an odd thing. Since all packets have addresses and these go back to a source (unless you are spoofing for one way traffic), it is hard to be truly anonymous. Someone, somewhere, may have a log fail containing records of connections between machines. That being said, it is an ocean of data and there are anonymizing tools, such as Tor or remailers. As various scandals in China, Burma, Egypt, Iran, and other places have shown in the last few years, governments will often go to great lengths to track down their own citizens if they engage in unpopular or critical speech (especially when directed at the government). This and attacking the pirating of “intellectual property” would seem to be the most obvious application of IP Traceback technology. A leaked document from Q6/17 seems to support this with its justification of the uses of the technology:

1.5 Proxy "Safe harbor" A political opponent to a government publishes articles putting the government in an unfavorable light. The government, having a law against any opposition, tries to identify the source of the negative articles but the articles having been published via a proxy server, is unable to do so protecting the anonymity of the author.

On the group’s own site it says, “Anonymity was considered as an important problem on the Internet (may lead to criminality). Privacy is required but we should make sure that it is provided by pseudonymity rather than anonymity.”

All of this is a situation that should be monitored closely. Secretive proposals by self-appointed organizations with input from known repressive regimes and organizations (don’t forget the NSA’s role in the wiretapping of American citizens) should be seen with deep suspicion in regards to their intent.