Internet Figure Pulls Plug on His Anonymity Service
Johan Helsingius, an Internet icon who for 3 1/2 years has championed anonymous communication over the global computer network by running a service that makes it possible, pulled the plug Friday on the machine known as anon.penet.fi.
Civil liberties advocates said the move, prompted by a Finnish court decision that the anonymity of the service could be breached by court order, raised serious concerns about the future of anonymous speech on the rapidly growing network.
A strong privacy ethic has prevailed on the Internet since its early days as a tool for academics and the military. The network was largely self-policed, and anonymous services--including Helsingius'--explained to users that they were not to be used for criminal activity, otherwise they would get shut down.
But the recent explosion of electronic commerce and community has raised the stakes. Law enforcement agencies, as well as anti-pornography advocates and many others, maintain that total anonymity provides too much shelter for a variety of criminal activities.
Based in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, Helsingius’ service was the biggest of its kind in the world, with more than half a million users and with 7,500 messages passing through it each day.
Frequent users included suicide counseling groups, human rights organizations and “anyone who wanted to discuss anything without their neighbors and employers looking on,” Helsingius said.
The amorphous structure of the Internet, which ignores international boundaries, means that users throughout the world will be affected by the shutdown. They will be offered the option of revealing their true identities or finding another service--there are about 40 others worldwide.
The idea of an anonymous remailer is to protect the confidentiality of its users’ identities. When a piece of e-mail was sent to anon.penet.fi, its identifying information was stripped off and a code number was substituted. The message was then forwarded to the individual, mailing list or discussion group for which it was intended.
The only link between the real and assumed identity resided on the computer in Helsingius’ home.
More sophisticated remailers use encryption software to create a new identity and route messages through a string of several computers around the world, never recording the transactions. That way no individual operator has a record of the original sender.
But Helsingius’ service was notable because it allowed others to respond directly to the sender via the pseudonym on anon.penet. It also did not require any special software programs--and it was free.
In a telephone interview Friday from Helsinki, the 35-year-old Finn--known by his e-mail handle, Julf--said he was discouraged by the court’s interpretation of the communication privacy laws in a case that involved a petition from the Church of Scientology, which wants Helsingius to reveal the identity of an individual who is alleged to have posted its copyrighted material on the Internet through Helsingius’ remailer.
“The court made it quite clear that the privacy of electronic mail isn’t covered in Finland anymore,” Helsingius said. “I would be running to the courtroom all the time because the suspicion of a crime, however minor, would be enough grounds to get a court decision to have the sender revealed. What’s the point?”
The Scientologists’ petition underlines the heightened threat--and potential benefit--of anonymity on the Internet. While anonymity is possible via traditional mail or over the telephone, the Internet provides far greater reach for far less cost than any other medium, and it is technically much harder to eavesdrop upon.
Helsingius, who has run the remailer in his spare time, has for three years been fending off requests from law enforcement authorities to discover the identity of his users. He was forced last February to provide Finnish authorities with the name of a user who was alleged to have broken into the church’s computer to steal copyrighted information.
The legal protection for digital anonymity has not yet been tested in U.S. courts, but Internet legal experts expect that it will be soon. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia is currently seeking to restrict the application of the new Georgia Computer Systems Protection Act, which broadly prohibits the use of pseudonyms on the Internet.
The issue of how to deal with anonymity is a crucial one for those trying to establish the medium as a place to work, play and live in the coming decades.
Internet-spawned activists such as the Cypherpunks argue that the system will collapse without a guarantee of secure and private communication. And advances in cryptography have made that, for the most part, technologically possible.
But other Internet enthusiasts disagree.
“The damage that can be done by anonymity is far bigger” than in any other medium, said Esther Dyson, chairwoman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “In the end, you need to be able to get at somebody’s identity to enforce accountability, and the question is how do you also enforce freedom of speech and freedom from prosecution for unpopular opinions.”
Anonymous services have in fact been used for “mail-bombing"--crashing computer systems by overloading them with e-mail--and for obscene postings to discussion groups that are tantamount to broadcasting obscene phone calls.
Anti-pornography advocates have also begun to target anonymous Internet services, which they blame for enabling the easy distribution of illicit material over the network.
Last week, in a front-page headline, the London weekly newspaper the Observer called Helsingius “the Internet middleman who handles 90% of all child pornography.”
Helsingius says the sensational article had nothing to do with his decision, but he is clearly tired of the situation. Most anonymous remailers, included anon.penet.fi, he says, filter out the transmission of large image files that are likely to contain pornographic pictures.
“I have personally been a target because of the remailer for three years. Unjustified accusations affect both my job and my private life,” he said.
After setting up his server so that it can be used on a limited basis by certain nonprofit groups, Helsingius plans to set up a task force to discuss the practical problems related to ethical and civil rights issues on the Internet.
Meanwhile, many Internet denizens mourned the passing of anon.penet on Friday and hailed Helsingius as a “net.hero.”
“This is a sad day in the history of the Net,” wrote Declan McCullagh, who runs a widely distributed electronic mailing list called “fight-censorship.” “Hundreds of thousands of people had accounts on Julf’s pseudonmyous server and many netizens relied on it daily to preserve their privacy online.”
"[Helsingius] has done a lot of good work. He’s been attacked on all sides, and he’s hung in there,” said Sameer Parekh, founder of Community Connexion in Berkeley, which hopes to build a business out of providing anonymous remailer services.
“It’s too bad that he had to shut down. But we believe there’s a demand for anonymity, and use of these systems is only going to increase.”
Anonymous remailers make it possible to send messages over the global Internet computer network without revealing who or where they come from. Anyone with an Internet account can contact a remailer service and register for an account. Then, when sending electronic mail or posting messages to an electronic discussion group, the subscriber addresses it to the remailer as well as to the final destination. The message travels to the remailer computer, which automatically strips off the originating name and address and forwards it to the final destination. Some remailers also allow the recipient of an anonymous message to respond anonymously, so that the entire exchange is “double-blind.”