Judging from recent legal events and recent survey data, protecting your online anonymity could be getting a lot tougher. From identity theft to cyber-stalking to new rules for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) about disclosing the names of their users, staying anonymous in cyberspace is becoming a tricky business.
"Identity theft is increasing," says Parry Aftab, executive director and a cyberspace lawyer for Wired Safety, which recently did a study on online safety and anonymity. "And because more people are cyber-dating, they become victims of cyber-stalking."
Aftab cautions that online users shouldnt share passwords or personal information online. Even that, though, wont do much about growing legal support for bars to online anonymity, she says, pointing to a January decision in favor of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). In the ruling, a federal judge ordered Verizon Communications to disclose the identity of an alleged peer-to-peer music file swapper—a case that the RIAA characterized as being about "the illegal distribution of music on the Internet."
The ruling is dangerous, according to Aftab. "It was supposedly about music piracy, but the result of the case is that anyone can obtain personal information about any Internet user by simply filling out a one-page form and submitting it to a court clerk." Internet Service Providers would be forced to reveal identities in this fashion, Aftab says. Many privacy and anonymity issues, she maintains, hinge on whether Verizon can win the case on appeal.
Meanwhile, some US states are tackling online anonymity issues on their own. A bill called the Internet Communications Protection Act is currently in the California state legislature. It seeks to protect the anonymity of online users by requiring Internet Service Providers to send a user an immediate alert if there is a subpoena issued in pursuit of that persons identity. Virginia has a similar law. Noncompliance with the California legislation could result in lawsuits from online users who wish to stay nameless.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has policed online anonymity issues for years, is one of the backers of the California legislation. "Assembly Bill 1143 would require that ISPs notify a consumer of any request to divulge the consumers identity when that consumers personally identifying information is sought in a civil suit," says a statement from EFF. "People speaking online have a wide variety of reasons for remaining anonymous, ranging from inappropriate or untimely disclosure of a medical condition, sexual orientation, or gender identity to the potential for retaliatory job loss, harassment, or violence."