Anonymity: The Web’s Double Edged Sword

atwdA COUPLE OF MONTHS AGO, 500 PEOPLE ON AN INTERNET mailing list received the digital equivalent of an obscene phone call. They opened their e-mail and out popped a series of digitized photographs of a woman having sex with a bull. Some of the recipients of these obscene images were children and teenagers. A brief note accompanying the images said, in effect, “Ha ha, you can’t catch me. I’m using an anonymous remailer.” But as a result of either the sender’s incompetence or a technical glitch, the note was accompanied by the sender’s e-mail address. It did not take long for the mailing list administrator to trace the address to a computer user near Oklahoma City. The young man is in big trouble and deserves every bit of it.

History does not recall the date of the first obscene phone call, but one can speculate that it occurred shortly after the automated switchboard replaced the local operator who knew the voice of everyone in town.

One can also assume that the creep who e-mailed the bestiality images to a bunch of strangers would not have done so if he had known that his e-mail address would be attached to them.

And that brings us face-to-face with the issue of anonymity. Many people believe that some of the most vexing social problems on the Internet and on-line information services could be eliminated, or at least reduced, if people were required to use their real names in cyberspace.

Would Hot2Trot be so lusty in an online chat session if her pseudonym were replaced by her legal name? Probably not.

But would Used2B34C have the courage to discuss her breast cancer so openly if her name was known publicly? Probably not.

Despite a growing number of abuses in the electronic world, anonymity and pseudonymity are cherished traditions in this country. The Federalist Papers were anonymous. The Supreme Court has upheld the right to speak anonymously, as long as the speech itself does not violate any law. One of the most popular novels this year was written by Anonymous.

The use of anonymity deserves protection, even when creeps in Oklahoma hide behind it to do foul and illegal things. That said, there is nothing stopping the online services from attempting to clean up their own electronic neighborhoods by banning the use of screen names–nothing, perhaps, except a loss of revenue if large numbers of subscribers choose to log on where they can speak anonymously.

That’s how capitalism works. If CompuServe really wants its new Wow! service to be family oriented, for example, it ought to require everyone to use their names. But there is a big difference between a commercial online service such as America Online, which can set its own rules, and the global, unregulated Internet. If lawmakers in the United States were to decide tomorrow to outlaw anonymity on computer networks, just as they have attempted to outlaw indecency, the majority of Internet users who reside outside the country would simply ignore the law.

Even so, some people want to crack down on anonymous remailers, such as the type used in the Oklahoma City case. Remailers are special computers on the Internet that strip off identifying information from a message before sending it to its destination. The remailers keep a record of the sender’s real address, however, so that they can forward any responses to the message back to its original sender.

As one might expect, remailers–which are typically operated by private individuals–have attracted the interest not only of people who have secrets to keep but also law enforcement officials and hackers who would love to get a list matching anonymous IDs with real names.

Remailers are only as trustworthy as the persons operating them. Because the Internet is a public system, anyone can operate a remailer, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, New Scotland Yard, and Interpol.

But enough digression. We do not outlaw wig shops or Halloween masks just because some people use them for illegal or immoral purposes. We do not require caller-ID services for everyone just because some people make obscene or harassing phone calls.

Nor should we strip the cloak of online anonymity from everyone, including those who legitimately need privacy, just to prevent sickos from abusing it.

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