AAAS urges caution in regulating anonymous communication on the Internet

June 29, 1999

Benefits of Anonymity Outweigh Likely Harms

Washington, DC -- Governments should be cautious in attempting to regulate how people conceal their identities on the Internet, according to a new study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Such regulations could prevent people from seeking counseling, expressing political opinions or engaging in financial transactions, and could impede the development of e-commerce and the World Wide Web.

The study is the first comprehensive analysis of how to balance the costs and benefits of anonymous communication on the Internet and is presented in the April-June issue of The Information Society, an international journal whose editorial offices are at Indiana University's School of Library and Information Science. The journal is published by Taylor & Francis Inc. The study is the result of a two-year project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to examine online anonymity.

"Policymakers ought not to react overzealously because some people have misused anonymous communications on the Internet," said Al Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS. "If anonymous communication is used for illegal purposes, the originators of the anonymous messages -- if they can be found -- should be punished. However, the positive values of anonymity more than offset the dangers it presents."

Rachelle Hollander, director of NSF's Societal Dimensions of Engineering, Science and Technology program, which funded the study, said, "There are many differences between Internet communications and other forms, but there is one significant similarity: The content of the communication, not just whether or not it is anonymous, determines its value. Anonymous communications over the Internet have positive and negative aspects. So do anonymous communications by telephone, the U.S. Mail, or the company suggestion box."

The explosive growth of the Internet over the last decade has created new avenues for anonymous communications. Anonymous remailers allow Internet users, free of charge, to post anonymous messages to most Usenet newsgroups or to send anonymous e-mail to anyone they wish. In its simplest form, an anonymous remailer works by accepting an e-mail message from a sender, stripping off the headers that would serve to identify the sender, and then forwarding the message to the intended recipient.

Under the cloak of anonymity, users can participate in political and human rights advocacy, engage in whistle blowing, receive counseling and perform commercial transactions without disclosing their identities. However, anonymity also helps to protects users who take part in socially unacceptable or criminal activities because of the difficulty in holding them accountable. Harmful communications include spamming, hate mail, child pornography and online financial fraud.

"Anonymous communication is a form of communication, with all of the human complexities that we experience in modern society. In modern society people routinely communicate anonymously when they shop or travel. It seems a bit more exotic in discussions of the Internet because of the social significance of specially helpful or harmful communications, and because of the technological complexities in creating or hiding on-line identities," said Rob Kling, editor-in-chief of The Information Society and Indiana University professor of information science and information systems.

In order to give Internet users the opportunity to communicate anonymously for legitimate reasons while deterring illegal or unethical uses of anonymity, the study makes several recommendations, including allowing online communities to set their own policies on the use of anonymous communication and informing Internet users about the extent to which their identity is disclosed online. The study discusses how anonymous communication can be shaped by the law, education and public awareness, and highlights the importance of involving all affected interests in policy development.

Policymakers, business leaders and scientists have been grappling with the just how anonymity should or shouldn't be regulated on the Internet. Several companies have pursued the strategy of filing "John Doe" lawsuits that enable them to subpoena files revealing the identities of those who they claim have defamed them on the Internet. And the U.S. government has placed strict export limits on high-powered encryption that is necessary to guarantee anonymity (although the House and the Senate are considering bills that would change the policy). Proponents of anonymity, however, argue that efforts to use the courts or regulations to control anonymity on the Internet can hamper technological advancement and undermine the open exchange of information.

Instances of both harmful and beneficial uses of anonymity are plentiful on the Internet. In 1996, a student at a University of California campus caused anguish for many people by sending anonymous hate mail to an Asian student electronic list. On the other hand, during NATO's military attacks on Kosovo in March 1999, special services were created to help Kosovars, Serbs and others reporting on the war to send e-mail anonymously or to post their comments on certain Web sites, avoiding both censorship and possible reprisals.

As one part of its online anonymity project, AAAS held a conference in November 1997 to address the problem of how to foster socially desirable uses online while discouraging undesirable uses. AAAS also conducted an online survey, convened focus groups of professionals, commissioned background papers on anonymity, and developed a series of case studies for educational use. A description of the project can be found on the AAAS Web site at http://www.aaas.org/spp/anon/.
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The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest federation of scientists, works to advance science for human well-being through its projects, programs, and publications. With more than 146,000 members and 282 affiliated societies, AAAS conducts many programs in the areas of science policy, science education and international scientific cooperation. AAAS publishes the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science, as well as a number of electronic features on the World Wide Web.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Media interested in copies of the report must contact Dave Amber at 202-326-6434 or go to The Information Society's Web site athttp://www.slis.indiana.edu/TIS.
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

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