The right to anonymity on Internet and legal implications

Pierluigi Paganini June 14, 2012

The demand of anonymity services is increased in response to the increase network monitoring and censorship,but the anonymity is a concept that induces fear.

Everyday, all our web actions leave traces of ourselves and of our way of life through the storing of massive amounts of personal data in databases in the internet, all these information composes our digital identity, our representation in the cyber space.

Users are “entities” in the cyberspace, the correlation of data with an impressive amount of sources usually escapes the control of the owner, making easy for a bad actors to steal our digital identity.

Certain personal information, even socially harmful, may be available to anyone beyond the time limits dictated by the principle of finality of the data. In the majority of the case, even if such data was deleted, they may still be accessible through storage mechanisms such as “cached” sources.

Today tracking user activities on the Internet represent a primary interest for private companies and Government entities, business and political motivations are pushing on the development of monitoring and surveillance systems. Let’s consider that monitoring implemented by many governments in situation of political dissent have had serious consequences for dissidents that have been tracked and persecuted due to the censorship

The demand of anonymity services is increased in response to the increase of network monitoring and censorship, but the anonymity is a concept that induces fear in our mind because we tend to associate it to illicit activities and cybercrimes.

This consideration is profoundly wrong, the anonymity of the user’s participation on internet could be also motivated by noble arguments, such as the fight for human right to liberty of expression, avoidance of censorship, liberal promotion and circulation of the thought.

The implementation of internet filters and anonymity are closely related, whereas the filters are applied at the network in a stringent and pervasive censorship, the possibility of being able to look out on an anonymous network becomes, first and foremost, a matter exercise of fundamental rights.

Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social debate, many individuals desire to hide their identities because they are concerned about political or economic repercussion, in many cases they are exposed to concrete risks to their lives.


Anonymity is derived from the Greek word anonymia, meaning “without a name”, in the common usage the term refers to the state of an individual’s personal identity, or personally identifiable information, being publicly unknown.

On the Internet the anonymity is guaranteed when IP addresses cannot be tracked, due this reason it has been observed a rapid diffusion of the use of Anonymizing services such as I2P and the Tor network. The anonymizing services are based on the concept of distribution of routing information, during a transmission in fact is not known prior the path between source and destination and every node of the network manage minimal information about packet routing.

The unpredictable routing of the packets and the introduction of encryption algorithms complicate the wiretapping of the information.

Right to anonymity – Legal implications

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment. A much-cited 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads:

Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.

Many institutions and foundations, such as The Electronic Frontier Foundation, are spending a great effort to protect the rights to on line anonymity.  As one court observed in a case handled by EFF along with the ACLU of Washington:

“[T]he free exchange of ideas on the Internet is driven in large part by the ability of Internet users to communicate anonymously.”

These organizations have challenged many efforts providing financial support to the development and deployment of Internet communications system to preserve anonymous communications, a valid example is the TOR network.

US First Amendment settled that the right to speak anonymously, the Supreme Court has held,

“Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority,” that “exemplifies the purpose” of the First Amendment: “to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation…at the hand of an intolerant society.”

Court pronunciations establish the duty of the Government to guard against undue hindrances to political conversations and the exchange of ideas, a vigilant review that

“must be undertaken and analyzed on a case-by-case basis”.

US laws establish a right to Speak Anonymously on the Internet and also right to Read Anonymously on the Internet, ensuring the principle of free internet ideological confrontation and the right to free movement of information.

 “People are permitted to interact pseudonymously and anonymously with each other so long as those acts are not in violation of the law. This ability to speak one’s mind without the burden of the other party knowing all the facts about one’s identity can foster open communication and robust debate.”

The technological developments of recent years caused high attention to the legal and technological possibility to maintain the online anonymity, especially in the face of the multiplication of resources internet monitoring.

The right to internet anonymity is also covered by European legislation that recognizes the fundamental right to data protection, freedom of expression, freedom of impression. The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights recognizes in Article. 8 (Title II: “Freedoms”) the right of everyone to protection of personal data concerning him.

The right to privacy is now essentially the individual’s right to have and to maintain control over information about him.

It may be helpful to abolish the anonymity?

In most cases not. The offenses do not become more serious for the mere fact of being committed or planned online, and therefore, there seems no real need to violate the right to anonymity online.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  Anonymity, Censorship)

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