Online anonymity is vital for creativity and entrepreneurship on the Web
During his keynote at the International World Wide Web Conference recently, Sir Tim Berners-Lee argued for the preservation of online anonymity as a safeguard against oppression. This resonated with his audience in Hyderabad, given the recent uproar in the Indian blogosphere and twitterverse around the IT Act (Amendment 2008) and the recently published associated rules for intermediaries and cyber cafes.
Over time, there has been a dilution of standards for blanket surveillance. The Telegraph Act allowed for blanket surveillance of phone traffic only as the rarest of exceptions. The IT Act and the ISP licence on the other hand, authorise and require ISPs and cyber cafes to undertake blanket surveillance as the norm in the form of data retention. The transaction database of the UID (Unique Identification Number) project will log of all our interactions with the government, private sector and other citizens; all these are frightening developments for freedom of expression in general and anonymous speech in particular.
Anonymous speech is a necessary pre-condition for democratic and open governance, free media, protection of whistle-blowers and artistic freedom. On many controversial areas of policy formulation, it is usually anonymous officials from various ministries making statements to the press. Would mapping UIDs to IP address compromise the very business of government? A traditional newspaper may solicit anonymous tips regarding an ongoing investigative journalism campaign through their website.
Would data retention by ISPs expose their anonymous sources? Whistle-blowers usually use public Wi-Fi or cyber cafes because they don't want their communications traced back to residential or official IP addresses. Won't the ban on open public Wi-Fi networks and the mandatory requirement for ID documents at cyber cafes jeopardise their safety significantly? Throughout history, great art has been produced anonymously or under a nom de plume. Will the draft Intermediary Due Diligence Rules, which prohibits impersonation even if it is without any criminal intent, result in artists sanitising their art into banality?
Anonymous speech online is facilitated by three forms of sharing — shared standards, shared software and shared identities. Shared or open standards such as asymmetric encryption and digital signatures allow for anonymous, private and yet authenticated communications. Shared software or Free/Open Source Software reassures all parties involved that there is no spy-ware or back door built into tools and technologies built around these standards.
Shared identities, unlike shared software and standards, is a cultural hack and, therefore, almost impossible to protect against. V for Vendetta, the graphic novel by Alan Moore gives us an insight into how this is could be done. The hero, V, hides his identity behind a Guy Fawkes mask. Towards the end of the novel, he couriers thousands of similar masks to the homes of ordinary citizens.
In the final showdown between V and the oppressive regime, these citizens use these masks to form an anonymous mob that confuses the security forces into paralysis. Shared identities online therefore, is the perfect counterfoil to digital surveillance.
As Dr. Berners-Lee spoke in Hyderabad, the Internet Rights and Principles Dynamic Coalition of the Internet Governance Forum released a list of 10 principles for online governance at the meeting convened by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in Stockholm.
The fifth principle includes “freedom from surveillance, the right to use encryption, and the right to online anonymity”. One hopes that Gulshan Rai of CERT-IN will heed the advice provided by his international peers and amend the IT Act rules before they have a chilling effect on online creativity and entrepreneurship.
(The author is Executive Director of the Centre for Internet and Society, a not-for-profit research organisation.)