INTERNET FREEDOMS THREATENED BY GOVERNMENTS AND E-COMMERCE
In an article entitled "Anonymous Now", Yaman Akdeniz argues that anonymity is central to democracy. Akdeniz notes that political activists, human rights organisations and dissident movements in repressive regimes increasingly rely on anonymous email to publicise human rights abuses, engage in whistle-blowing, receive counselling, or join in all forms of discussions. One important technological tool for guaranteeing anonymity are "re-mailers" that forward email messages to other addresses, while making it impossible to trace the name and email address of the sender. "Re-mailers" allow those who might be in danger if identified, such as reporters in war zones and human rights activists, to send out information on the Internet without fear of reprisals. However, governments and law enforcement agencies are now planning to crack down on Internet anonymity. A recent US White House report states that Internet anonymity facilitates cyber-crimes such as fraud, distribution of child pornography, and the sale of drugs or guns. Recent attempts in the US to pass legislation that would bar anonymous communications lead Akdeniz to worry about how governments plan to address law enforcement needs while preserving the rights of Internet users. The importance of anonymity as a facilitator of free speech was affirmed by the European Court of Human Rights in 1996, while anonymity also enables users to prevent surveillance and monitoring of their activities on the net. "Those who call for the prohibition of anonymous re-mailers or other restrictions on anonymity fail to recognise the potential damage to freedom of expression online," writes Akdeniz.
John Naughton, in his article the "The Invisible Hand", argues that the biggest threat to Internet freedom is not government, as many assume, but e-commerce. The first stage of the Internet was defined by a decentralised, permissive structure in which anonymity allowed people to speak in ways that they could not in "real" space. But Naughton notes that anonymity undermines trade -- traders must know with whom they are dealing, message and transactions have to be secure, and ways have to be found for appending 'digital signatures' with legal validity to electronic documents. "An entire new technical architecture to facilitate e-commerce is being created . . . ready to be grafted onto the older libertarian architecture of the net," says Naughton. "And therein lies the danger."
Naughton writes that the new e-commerce layer will eliminate anonymity and erode privacy. Changes will enable website operators to identify not just the address of the machines that visit the site, but the identity of the persons who initiated the access. Sites could refuse access to those who refused to provide a digital signature authenticating their identity. Information could be gathered on which pages you view, for how long, what items were purchased, and what appeared to be of most interest -- leading to massive databases on the online behaviour of named individuals. And this information could be sold or disclosed to other agencies without the subject's knowledge or consent. Naughton foresees that the anonymous reading of documents online could also become obsolete. He says that the new Internet is driven by the needs of business rather than the interests of citizens or society. As governments get out of the way of commerce, there are no measures to limit the threats to privacy and civil rights. According to Naughton, "cyberspace -- the most gloriously open, uncensored, and unregulated public space in human history -- could easily become the most controlled environment imaginable." For more information, see