The Internet is becoming less anonymous

Brian FosdickThe New York Times put out another major article this week on a foreign government asking Twitter for help in identifying some of its posters so they could be prosecuted in French courts.

The accused had posted anti-Semitic tweets, which violated a French law against racist speech. At the same time, Twitter has pointed out that under its own rules it does not divulge information on its posters. It is one of many cases that bring up the question of how foreign laws can be enforced on US companies.

Since the US has no laws that restrict racist speech (excluding hate speech), it technically does not violate American law and the case would have no bearing on US soil. But this would not be the first time Twitter has done something to please foreign governments if they choose.

The Internet itself has been a mess for lawmakers worldwide, as it does not follow the same rules that normally apply. The lines on what is said online are blurry and the law has yet to catch up.

The real problem comes down to the fact that anonymity is one of the main pulls of the Internet. Regardless of what it is used for, anonymous communication is part of what makes the Internet  great. It allows you to post opinions, no matter how inflammatory, without fear of reprisal. It acts as a mode of healthy civil disobedience that would otherwise not be available, in both the US and many places worldwide.

I always try to avoid being the guy in the basement with a tin foil hat, but the government is making slow and steady progress into people’s privacy. It is starting to make me wonder when it will stop.

Many Internet companies are being forced to crack down on are self-defeating evils. Germany recently requested Twitter block access to a neo-Nazi group’s Tweets in Germany, which Twitter agreed to do, but the question that came to mind is: why bother? It is a vocal minority of people with no real power other than spouting obscure opinions that no one honestly cares about. The case itself probably brought them more publicity than their Twitter postings ever could have.

These are things that can easily be ignored on the site as well. Every major Internet site has some mode by which you can filter your own content. If you do not want to deal with people having a different or inflammatory opinion, you never have to.

The other major problem is that many governments are attempting to make laws that would affect the internet with little to no knowledge of what they are saying. Last May the New York State Assembly attempted to pass a bill that would require web administrators, if requested, to require anonymous commentators to identify themselves with their legal name and address or have their comments removed.

Now, if you have been on the Internet for more than a day, you know that this law is not only impossible to carry out, but outright ridiculous.

However, what the bill made clear is that we need to start looking at how we are going to regulate Internet access. It is time to start looking at how and why the Internet is being targeted and what we can do to stop certain regulation before it starts violating our basic rights to have and voice an opinion.

One of the most recent reports of government attempts to delve into the Internet’s confines came (again) from the New York Times. The Times reported that the government has been requesting more and more access to private emails, specifically from Google. According to the article, the government has made 70 percent more requests in the last three years for access to private emails.

Normally, one would think that the government would have to go through some sort of process to gain access to these emails. But because the last laws regarding this were written in the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the government can view any emails that are older than 180 years old. It is this kind of recent action by the government that makes the way they are approaching the internet highly suspect, if not outright unethical.

I am not here to tell you that I am going to weep for the loss of neo-Nazi groups or racism on the Internet, but I am going to tell you that in its current state, our government is not the body to be telling us what should and should not be acceptable.