Thursday, January 11, 2007

A German threat to Anonymous Email Accounts

There is a lot of confusion about anonymity on the internet, and what it means. In Europe, data protection law governs the process of personal data on the internet. However, such law applies only if the data is “personal”, that is, if it can be linked to a particular person. If data is totally anonymous, then by definition it is not possible to link it to a person, so that it is not covered by the law.

Even though anonymity sounds like a black and white concept, it is actually much more flexible than we usually think. We all depend on a certain amount of anonymity in our daily lives; for example, if you buy a book in a bookstore with cash, you are assuming that your transaction will remain anonymous. In order to protect our private sphere, it is important that we have the choice to carry out certain transactions anonymously.

At the same time, even this example shows how anonymity is not absolute. You might be friends with the salesperson who sold you the book, so that he would know that you bought a particular book. The bookstore may also have surveillance cameras located near the cash registers to record transactions in case of theft. Most people don’t worry much about these types of small incursions into anonymity, since they are minor and nearly unavoidable.

However, recently governments have been trying to make broad inroads on anonymity for law enforcement purposes, particularly with regard to the internet. Governments are particularly nervous about anonymous e-mail accounts that are offered by many online services, since they believe that such accounts are used by terrorists and other criminals. In fact, recently the German justice minister even proposed eliminating or sharply restricting such anonymous e-mail, by requiring that individuals present a passport before they are able to open a webmail account. Here’s the proposal (in German only):

That’s a bad idea. It would not even be technically possible to eliminate or restrict such accounts, since such e-mail services are freely available on the web from providers in other countries. Moreover, just as we all want a certain degree of anonymity when we buy a book, there are occasions when people want and need to have an anonymous e-mail account. There are many such scenarios: the dissident who is writing an account of political persecution to be sent to a newspaper abroad; the individual who wants to order something over the internet but doesn’t want to use his office e-mail; or just the ordinary internet user who is concerned about his privacy will all want to consider using an e-mail account which isn’t tied to their particular name or identity. There is nothing wrong with that, and it is no different than sending a letter to someone without putting your return name and address on the envelope.

Attempting to restrict or regulate anonymity on the internet, or even to ban anonymous e-mail accounts, will only be ineffective, and will severely damage trust of individuals and consumers to use the net. Politicians should be attempting to increase privacy protection on the net and user trust, rather than restricting them in this way.


Anonymous said...

I think that privacy is very important.
Recently I signud up to an anonymous online password manager.
I like it because it is anonymous but I have a doubt:
is it possible that in the future someone (for example the US government) can say that this type of services is illegal and stop it?
In this case I am afraid that I will lose my data.
What do you think about?

Noah said...

Several anonymous email services now exist that operate our of USA/EU law restrictions. These would be very hard to regulate and can protect their users' data under their own local laws. Check out for free anonymous email, anonymous web surfing, and even anonymous web hosting services.