Millennium Post

Freedom of internet anonymity

It is a strange paradox of our Internet age – the more connected we are the more we lose our identity. The Internet has brought a lot of people closer and made organisations more accessible, but are we ourselves when we interact with others in this nameless, often faceless, ‘other’ world? Of course, anonymity is one of the attractions of the Internet and there has been far reaching changes in the way we use cyberspace as well. What started off as chats on ICQ developed into swapping emoticons on Facebook – from the nameless to an enforced identity tag, that Facebook and Google now demand. Is it true the problems of popularity are the same problems that force us to show our hand, to reveal our identity? Facebook is bigger than most of the other chat hosts and therefore has to be careful in respecting the wishes of its legion of followers. Is this what has brought an ersatz morality to the service? It is true that there are loopholes and many people still log in with false identities, but there is a check, in real terms, on how free one actually is on this site.

This brings us to the pros and cons of Internet anonymity. It is the same old faceoff between freedom and responsibility? If we are not indentified then we do not have to be responsible on the Internet – that is the generally held belief. But what about the social development initiatives and sites like that canvass for signatures and collect thousands of supporters, which sites like do, with each specific identity seemingly lost in a morass of names? Child help lines are a
telephone service where the identity of the person phoning in is an assured secret – and helps social workers to reach a child in need rather than get bogged down with identifying the caller. People who do want get into the bad books of neighbours or earn the ire of society take refuge behind
anonymity that the Internet affords. Opinion routing is another reason why people prefer to remain anonymous. We don’t want our opinions to anger or irritate others. Much good may be done without anyone needing to know whose opinion or call to action wrought a change.

Why do we need internet anonymity?
It is not only hackers, terrorists or child pornographers who need Internet anonymity. There are genuine needs for cover that is demanded by the very nature of the Internet today like, for instance, websites tracking visitors to send them ads and links to social media and search engines storing their search history. Not only they, but social media giants are themselves quite intrusive and track where people go on the Internet! Once identity is compromised Internet users may be sitting ducks for identity theft and Internet related illegal activity. People are also conscious of being spied upon their daily activities, likes and dislikes – by even the government! Keeping safe in the digital age seems to have become a precautionary action that must be taken by all who value their privacy.

Is it easy to be anonymous on the Internet?
It is virtually impossible to be completely anonymous. Some information can always be obtained which can identity or profile an Internet user. The best one can do is to minimise the amount of information that goes out to the watchers. That being said, these precautions are not convenient and a conscious effort has to be made each time one get on to the Internet. The connection would be slower, for one, and there are several rounds of checks one would have to go through each time. The Internet, simply, was not designed to be anonymous and an IP address would normally give away the identity of the computer that is used to get online. This address would throw up the name of the Internet Service Provider who would be charged, with reasonable cause, to reveal the identity of the person using the service.

There are ways around this, of course. Networks such as I2P and Tor add multiple layers of encryption to information packets being transported from the sender to the receiver. Proxy servers can be used. Web based proxies can be chosen which change every day and effect traffic going through that website. Of course, this also demands that the internet user be familiar with the technicalities like Encryption which sends data using a randomly generated code which is unique to the sender and the server only; Virtual Private Networks (VPN) which is an encrypted connection between a user and a server, a specialised channel through the internet that connects the two; and Virtual Private Servers (VPS) which are in another country so that traffic to and from the VPS cannot lead straight to one’s private address.

A bad reputation with no name

Anonymity has the hovering ghost of a bad reputation because of its association with reduced accountability for actions. The effects of these actions are taken to be harmful for the reputation of people. And yet the sort of anonymity that comes from belonging to large crowds does happen with the teeming cyberspace these days. People have various psychological and philosophical reactions to the question and need for anonymity. There is the immediate connection with criminals using scarves and masks hide a face and gloves to leave no fingerprints. While it is true that the purchase of items of crime, like guns or materials for a bomb are ominously dangerous if unidentifiable, acts of charity enjoy benefits of a supposed selflessness when done anonymously.

There, the avoidance of publicity and modesty is applauded. Thus, immediately, we see examples of double standards here. It is indeed hard to categorise human activities and therefore place a blanket of suspicion on the desire for anonymity. It is also important to remember that the press had always had an interesting relationship with anonymity. Published leaders and editorials in newspapers are almost always without a byline. The Guardian holds the view that “people will often speak more honestly if they are allowed to speak anonymously”. Indeed, most writers and reviewers in the UK did not add their names to contributions in periodicals or dailies.

Of late the question of Internet anonymity, indeed the freedom of the Internet, has been in the limelight because of our government’s bans – on sites, and, later, on content. This is the other side of Internet integrity, where content may be proscribed. Some repressive regimes blank out free access to the Internet and the examples of China and North Korea come immediately to mind as aberrant restrictors in the world without boundaries that the Internet is supposed to be.

A cyberscape without privacy
Wherever and whenever on earth anyone is opening a laptop or switching on a phone he or she is part of a huge battle about what the Internet is going to be like in the future. The role of anonymity is a raging question worldwide. Today, the most respected voice for Internet anonymity is David Chaum who used to be a computer scientist at Berkley in the 1980s. It was back then that he predicted that the computer networks would make mass surveillance possible and real in the days to come. He rarely gives interviews but recently he spoke to the BBC about the most pressing anxieties about the cyberworld that we are facing now. “Well, it is sad to me. But it is really no surprise that the privacy issue has unfolded the way it has. I spelled it out in early publications in the early 80s.”

He has been called ‘the godfather of anonymous communication’ because of his large body of early work and also because he was the first person to introduce sophisticated cryptography not to hide the content of the message but to hide the identity of the messenger. His work formed the bases of the modern Tor network mentioned earlier in the article. Tor’s ability to allow individuals to get online without detection has proved to be a lifesaving gift to dissenters working under regimes that closely control the internet such as Syria and Iran apart from the Far East Asian examples cited before.

Julian Assagne, the whistleblower of Wikileaks fame, was interviewed while in asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London by BBC’s Horizon programme. On the issue of Internet anonymity he said that, “It was a long standing quest... to be able to communicate individual to individual freely and anonymously. Tor was the first anonymous protocol to get the balance right.”

However, the most used encryption
systems in use today – Tor, I2P and Freenet still have a long way to go before they can be called
user-friendly. In a cyberscape which is increasingly and frighteningly controlled by those Internet giants who know some of our innermost details it will be some time before public will, if there is one, could make Internet anonymity more available to users.

Ankur Roy Chowdhury is a writer and documentary film-maker who lives in both Calcutta and New Delhi
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