Every email sent via the Internet, every Netnews article and everything typed on Internet Relay Chat has a header message attached which enables the whereabouts of the message's author to be traced. As soon as you write something your Internet Identity added. If for some reason you should not want your name to appear anywhere, you either apply your technical wizardry knowledge to fake your true ID, or in case you are no wizard you can simply use the service of an anonymous remailer.
A remailer is an address through which electronic messages pass that for some reason or other should not bear one's own name and address. The way remailers work is easy: the message is first sent to the remailer before embarking on the rest of its journey to its actual destination. The user ID and other information pertaining to its origin is removed, replaced by an anonymous ID and the message is sent on its way. There are various remailer systems. "One-way"systems are limited to removing the original ID. Other systems are used as a kind of anonymous P.O. box and can be used for sending as well as receiving mail. In this case, the remailer uses a database which contains the original ID and the remailer's ID.
Looking at the Netnews messages which have passed through a remailer it becomes apparent that although this service is mostly used for sending sex messages, it is also a way of helping other people with personal problems or asking for help oneself that could otherwise have unwanted consequences. This way, spouses, bosses, neighbours as well as mom & dad are prevented from finding out who actually sent the message off. For example, nobody@REPLAY.COM posted a message in alt.sex.bondage in order to meet people that share his/her interests. The anonymous ID firstname.lastname@example.org protects a user's identity who hopes to find some form of support from the other readers of alt.support-eating-disorders. Anonymity is also what Net users who dare only present political or religious issues to the Net in this manner are looking for. One of these people is a user of the popular Finnish remailer anon.penet.fi who used the ID number an144108 to make Scientology interna known to the general public.
As well as threats from moralists who regard this Finnish remail service to be a dangerous source used to distribute smut, the Church of Scientology would like to pull the plug on this remailer and has called in lawyers to make the names of anonymous critics of Scientology known. In February 1995, the Church of Scientology called in Interpol and Finnish prosecutors in order to find out an144108's real identity. Pressurized by possible police measures which would have meant disclosing not one but all of the registered names in the database, the system's owner Johan "Julf" Helsingius revealed the identity of the person Scientology was looking for. Just one year later, on August 30th 1996, he announced his remailer would shut down.
"I will close the remailer for the time being because the legal issues concerning the Internet in Finland are yet undefined. The legal protection of the users needs to be clarified. At the moment the privacy of Internet messages is judicially unclear... I have also personally been a target because of the remailer. Unjustified accusations affect both my job and my private life."
The British Sunday newspaper The Observer had previously accused Helsingius of being guilty of distributing child porn pictures, which led to investigations against him led by the Finnish police. On the front page there was a headline reading "The pedlars of child abuse. We know who they are. Yet no one is stopping them." Helsinguis' name and photograph illustrated the false accusation: "The Internet middleman who handles 90 percent of all child pornography." The Finnish police carried out further investigations but the Observer's accusations turned out to be wrong. It had been technically impossible to send any kind of digital photographs via anon.penet.fi for quite some time.
The American Electronic Frontier Foundation , a global Internet civil rights initiative and bastion of resistance against attacks on the freedom of speech reported continuously on the incidents concerning anon.penet.fi. The EFF collects donations to cover legal costs should Helsinguis be involved in a court case to settle whether Finnish law can force him to reveal the identity of anon.finet.pi users. Furthermore, Helsingius is considering legal steps against the newspaper The Observer for slandering him and his remailer as being a child porn den of vice.
The closing down of anon.penet.fi led to an outbreak of outrage and solidarity with Helsingius throughout the Internet in order to protect freedom on the Net. In the letters of protest that followed, it was not so much the use of remailers for private purposes that was important but rather the principle of freedom of information and the guarantee of the unrestricted exchange of data on the Net.
In march 1997, Helsingius has been honored with the EFF Pioneer Award for his contribution to online freedom and privacy by establishing and maintaining the first practical anonymous e-mail server. "For many years his anonymous remailer, anon.penet.fi, allowed people who might otherwise be intimidated or even endangered to speak out and to express their views. From battered women to political refugees, Helsingius' system provided all users the ability to communicate freely and safely in cyberspace."
Criminals using remailers are hard to capture. Prosecutors are not always able to find out users' real IDs. This is one of the reasons why law and order types clamour for an end to anonymity on the Net. On the other hand - the abuse of a thing is no argument against its use. International laws differ on this point however, making it impossible for the time being to come up with one unanimous regulation. Many remailers are located in the USA which guarantees freedom of speech as defined by the First Amendment. Hopefully, remailers will also continue to guarantee that users from Tibet, Indonesia and anywhere else in the world where they are not protected by free speech can still speak their minds.
Anon.penet.fi was one of the most popular Internet remailers, with over 700.00 registered users and handling 10.000 mails a day. The development and running of the server, which was the first of its kind to use a password-protected P.O. box system for sending and receiving e-mails, were due to the private initative of Net veteran Julf Helsingius, a vehement believer in the free speech principle. Helsingius has been a Nethead since the Seventies, in the days of ARPANET. In the Eighties he was the systems administrator for the central Finnish news node as well as one of the founding members of the Finnish UNIX User Group and today he is managing director of EUnet Finland and the product manager of EUnet International, a large European private Internet provider.
Anon.penet.fi came into being in 1993 as the technical answer to an argument that had been going on for some time in Finland's research network. Some universities demanded that all messages could always be traced to the sender and be signed with a valid name. "I said this was impossible to enforce because the Internet works according to different principles and it would always be possible to find a technical loophole to get around using one's real name. To prove my point, I worked out a technical answer to the problem in just two days, then the first version of my server was ready," Helsingius told Volker Grassmuck in an interview about how his remailer got started.
Nowadays there are numerous remailers one can use if necessary. Some of them are commercial services, others such as the replay.com server in Amsterdam are free. Alex de Joode who runs the remailer since 1994 came up with the idea as a result of discussions on the subject of anonymity on the Net and the protection of privacy on a cypherpunk mailing list. As he himself says:
"Free speech means a lot to me. You have to be able to say anything you want - even mindless drivel. Stupidity or racist heckling cannot be wiped out through censorship but rather by confronting the problem. Censorship simply isn't the way to go. I established Replay to prevent censorship from succeeding and it seems to work very well. I felt that I could contribute to making it very difficult for governments and businesses to trace people. By setting up a remailer I would make it very difficult for one country to put censorship in place, since the Internet is global every person with a modem can use my service and circumvent censorship legislation, this person can speak freely and should not fear retribution for speaking what is on his mind. I've had trouble with the Singapore government because someone there questioned the rulings of the President, but that is exactly why the remailer is there!"
As always, there seems to be a technical solution to all kind of problems, in this case problems deriving from a confrontation with RL law systems:
"I feel sorry for Julf, and wish him all the luck he can get, but his problems are a result of the type of remailer he was running; there was a database mapping of the anon-ID <-> real-ID, and if "would-be censors" feel they have a chance of getting to the real ID they will grab anything to get to that. My remailers have no mapping, they are strictly one-way, even I don't know who and why people are using my system."
As long as the global network includes states whose laws do not allow free speech to be curbed in any way and as long as there are clever remailer systems and other masking possibilities for communication on the Internet, making up one's own mind without any form of censorship involved will be an everyday occurence for the Net community. If it is technically possible to route around censorship, then maybe people will actively deal with beliefs that aren't necessarily theirs instead of simply banning them, thus leading to contrary opinions and maybe better arguments. The most effective non-argumentative weapons in the fight against unwanted or criminal messages on the Internet do not begin with other users, but at home: delete keys and filtering programmes.
Sabine Helmers (email@example.com) is a cultural anthropologist at the Social Science Research Center Berlin. Her current field of study is the Internet and Unix techno-culture.