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The End of Anonymity


The Internet is a great place for anonymity. A woman can go into a chat room on the Web and pretend to be a man. A teenager can pretend to be a lawyer and give out free legal advice. A blogger with a pseudonym can dispense inside gossip about the government or Hollywood or the corporate world.

But anonymity is a much more precious commodity these days on the Internet. Just ask Chinese journalist Shi Tao.

Last year, the Chinese government told Shi Tao’s newspaper – the daily Contemporary Trade News of Changsha in Hunan Province – not to play up the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. When Shi Tao leaked this information to the outside world by email, the Chinese government demanded that Yahoo furnish information about the identity of the sender. Yahoo complied. As a result, Shi Tao has been sentenced to ten years in prison.

In the United States, editorial writers, human rights activists, and Republican congressmen have accused Yahoo of putting profit before principle in its relations with Beijing. According to these critics, the Internet provider will do anything to keep its foot in the Chinese market, even to the point of besmirching the ideal of free speech. Yahoo says it was simply obeying Chinese laws.

Strangely, in all of this outrage, no one has pointed out that Internet providers face the same dilemma…in the United States.

For some time, the U.S. government has monitored Internet traffic within the United States. The surveillance software, an earlier version of which was appropriately called Carnivore, acts much like a wiretap. U.S. law enforcement officials must get a court order to use the program against particular individuals, and the public simply has to trust that the investigators are not going beyond their mandate.

At the international level, the shadowy National Security Agency runs a program called “Echelon.” Although little is known about the top spy agency and its programs, Echelon is essentially a huge filter that looks for key words or phrases like “al Qaeda” or “suicide bomber” in the vast accumulation of global electronic communication. Although designed to target “terrorists” and the like, Echelon has been used to monitor groups like Greenpeace and Amnesty International in the United Kingdom. Despite U.S. constitutional protections, the NSA used Echelon to monitor the activities of U.S. citizens. When discovered, this monitoring led to widespread outcry and a 1978 law banning domestic spying except under certain circumstances.

Those “certain circumstances,” which include counter-terrorism, became a much larger category after the U.S. Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act after September 11. The PATRIOT Act gave the U.S. government expanded powers to pursue terrorists, which included Internet surveillance.

As a result of the PATRIOT Act, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can find out the true identity of Internet users without a court order. The FBI merely has to argue that the information is in some way relevant to a terrorism or espionage investigation. According to the watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation, “the FBI has been using this new power aggressively, although the agency itself has been unwilling to disclose even the most basic statistical information.” A recent Washington Post article on “The FBI’s Secret Scrutiny” estimated that the FBI now issues more than 30,000 annual requests for private information on Americans not suspected of any crime – one hundred times more than it did prior to the passage of the PATRIOT Act.

The U.S. government uses words like “national security” and “counter-terrorism” to justify such infringements of civil liberties. And so does the Chinese government. The Chinese government considers the Tiananmen Square protests a matter of national security. And the Chinese government considers dissidents — as well as Falun Gong and various liberation movements — to be terrorists.

So how should a business like Yahoo respond to this situation? It could follow a policy of relinquishing private information to whatever government asks for it. Or it could refuse to provide any information on the grounds of freedom of speech and illegal search and seizure laws — which would mean standing up not only to the Chinese government but to the U.S. government as well.

By giving the name of Shi Tao to the Chinese government, Yahoo was being very consistent in its policies. After all, it hasn’t made much of a fuss about the PATRIOT Act. But consistency is not always a good thing. On the issue of the Internet and civil liberties, Yahoo has been consistently wrong.

John Feffer (www.johnfeffer.com) is the author, most recently, of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis.

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