Report: Censorship

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"Freedom of anonymous speech is an essential component of free speech."

Ian Goldberg/David Wagner, TAZ Servers and the Rewebber Network: Enabling Anonymous Publishing on the World Wide Web, in: First Monday 3,4, 1999

Someone wants to hide one's identity, to remain anonymous, if s/he fears to be holding accountable for something, say, a publication, that is considered to be prohibited. Anonymous publishing has a long tradition in European history. Writers of erotic literature or pamphlets, e. g., preferred to use pseudonyms or publish anonymously. During the Enlightenment books as d'Alembert's and Diderot's famous Encyclopaedia were printed and distributed secretly. Today Book Locker, a company selling electronic books, renews this tradition by allowing to post writings anonymously, to publish without the threat of being perishing for it. Sometimes anonymity is a precondition for reporting human rights abuses. For example, investigative journalists and regime critics may rely on anonymity. But we do not have to look that far; even you might need or use anonymity sometimes, say, when you are a woman wanting to avoid sexual harassment in chat rooms.

The original design of the Net, as far as it is preserved, offers a relatively high degree of privacy, because due to the client-server model all what is known about you is a report of the machine from which information was, respectively is requested. But this design of the Net interferes with the wish of corporations to know you, even to know more about you than you want them to know. What is euphemistically called customer relationship management systems means the collection, compilation and analysis of personal information about you by others.

In 1997 America Online member Timothy McVeigh, a Navy employee, made his homosexuality publicly known in a short autobiographical sketch. Another Navy employee reading this sketch informed the Navy. America Online revealed McVeigh's identity to the Navy, who discharged McVeigh. As the consequence of a court ruling on that case, Timothy McVeigh was allowed to return to the Navy. Sometimes anonymity really matters.

On the Net you still have several possibilities to remain anonymous. You may visit web sites via an anonymizing service. You might use a Web mail account (given the personal information given to the web mail service provider is not true) or you might use an anonymous remailing service which strips off the headers of your mail to make it impossible to identify the sender and forward your message. Used in combination with encryption tools and technologies like FreeHaven or Publius anonymous messaging services provide a powerful tool for countering censorship.

In Germany, in 1515, printers had to swear not to print or distribute any publication bypassing the councilmen. Today repressive regimes, such as China and Burma, and democratic governments, such as the France and Great Britain, alike impose or already have imposed laws against anonymous publishing on the Net.

Anonymity might be used for abuses, that is true, but "the burden of proof rests with those who would seek to limit it. (Rob Kling, Ya-ching Lee, Al Teich, Mark S. Frankel, Assessing Anonymous Communication on the Internet: Policy Deliberations, in: The Information Society, 1999).

browse Report:
-2   Censorship and Free Speech
-1   The Privatization of Censorship
0   Anonymity
+1   Eliminating online censorship: Freenet, Free Haven and Publius
+2   Censored links: Linking as a crime