The Information Society


Letter from the Editor-in-Chief Rob Kling
15(2) 1999

This special issue of The Information Society, 15(2), devoted to Anonymous Communication on the Internet, was guest edited by Dr. Mark Frankel and Dr. Al Teich. It includes six regular articles and two shorter Forum articles.

Two different kinds of events illustrate the consequences of anonymous communication on the Internet. There are periodic cases of people sending hate messages via e-mail accounts that mask their identities. For example, in 1996 a student at a University of California campus sent a note to an Asian student electronic list warning that all Asians should leave the campus or the sender would "hunt all of you down." "I personally will make it my [life's work] to find and kill every one of you personally. OK? That's how determined I am. Do you hear me?" The email was signed "Asian Hater.” While the sender was later identified, tried of a hate crime, and convicted, many Asian students were frightened by his message.

In March 1999, during NATO’s military attacks on Kosovo, The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Anonomizer helped to organize a “Kosovo Privacy Project” Two special services were created to help Kosovars, Serbs, and others reporting on the war to anonymously send email or post their comments on certain web sites. (See Human rights activists claim that anonymous email, like that provided by the Kosovo Privacy Project, are essential means of communicating more effectively with people who are critical of despotic politics in their own countries.

These two kinds of examples illustrate the double edged character of anonymous communication via the Internet. In daily life, some kinds of anonymous communication may be straightforward – such as sending an unsigned letter with no return address, posting unsigned notices secretly at night, or making phone calls from pay phones. Using the Internet makes it easier for a person to reach thousands of people with one well-placed e-mail message. However anonymous communication via the Internet is usually more technically complicated, as illustrated by the high quality anonomizing technologies used by the Kosovo Privacy Project. Because of abuses, such as anonymous hate email, some people have wondered whether anonymous communication (or its support technologies) should be banned or restricted, and whether anonymous email services should bear any liability if they pass along harmful illegal messages.

To address the problem of how to foster socially-desirable uses of anonymous communication online while discouraging undesirable uses, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held an invitational conference in November 1997. The conference was organized by Dr. Mark Frankel and Dr. Al Teich of the AAAS, and was the basis for the articles that appear in this special issue. 

The issue opens with, “Anonymous Communication Policies for the Internet: Results and Recommendations of the AAAS Conference” by Al Teich, Mark Frankel, Rob Kling and Ya-Ching Lee. The conference participants formulated some key principles, including: that nline anonymous communication is morally neutral; that it should be considered a strong human and constitutional right; that online communities should be allowed to set their own policies on the use of anonymous communication; and that individuals should be informed about the extent to which their identity is disclosed online. The article discusses how anonymous communications can be shaped by the law, education, and public awareness, and highlights the importance of involving all affected interests in policy development.

The conference participants deliberated in small working groups over a three day period. The second article, “Assessing Anonymous Communication on the Internet: Policy Deliberations” by Rob Kling, Ya-Ching Lee, Al Teich and Mark Frankel discusses the kinds of examples, issues, and arguments which animated the policy debates and which underlay the conference’s more formal findings. It serves as an important briefing paper for readers who are interested in the nuances of anonymous communication on the Internet. It also serves as a tutorial about some key terms in the debates, such as anonymity, confidentiality, psedonymity and pseudo-anonymity. It also explains some of the new technological supports for anonymous communication on the Internet.

Peter Wayner’s article, “Technology for Anonymity: Names by other Nyms” provides a deeper tutorial of some of the technologies for supporting anonymous communication on the Internet. He also argues that anonymous communications is an important element of crime prevention. 

Gary Marx’s article, “What's in a Name? Some Reflections on the Sociology of Anonymity” is based on a paper that he discussed at the conference. He suggests seven ways of identifying a person, including their legal name, their location, and distinctive appearance and behavior patterns. Marx makes the important point that identity and anonymity are features of social relationships rather than a property of a person. (John is not anonymous, although he may communicate anonymously or pseudonomously with Mary). He identifies some major rationales and contexts for anonymous communication (free flow of communication, protection, experimentation) and identifiability (e.g., accountability, reciprocity, eligibility). A central contribution of this article is Marx’s principle of truth in the nature of naming which holds that those who use pseudonyms on the Internet in personal communications have an obligation to indicate they are doing so. This principle provoked intense and sustained discussion at the conference. Last, Marx suggests 13 procedural questions to guide the development and assessment of any policy regarding anonymous communication in the Internet.

A. Michael Froomkin’s article, Legal Issues in Anonymity and Pseudonymity examines how this controversy will have direct effects on the freedom of speech, the nature of electronic commerce, and the capabilities of law enforcement. He shows how the legal resolution of the anonymity issue also is closely bound up with other difficult and important legal issues: campaign finance laws, economic regulation, freedom of speech on the Internet generally, the protection of intellectual property, and general approaches to privacy and data protection law. He argues that the legal constraints on anonymous communication, and the constitutional constraints on those who would regulate it further, should be considered in tandem with the policies animating regulation and also their side-effects.

In “Information Privacy in the Marketspace: Implications for the Commercial Uses of Anonymity on the Web”, Donna L. Hoffman, Thomas P. Novak, and Marcos A. Peralta develop the argument that the primary barrier to the successful commercial development of the Web is the current lack of consumer trust in this new commercial medium. They believe that this lack of trust is engendered primarily by the industry's documented failure to respond satisfactorily to mounting consumer concerns over information privacy in electronic, networked environments. They examine how such concerns are affecting the growth and development of consumer-oriented commercial activity on the World Wide Web and investigate the implications of these concerns for potential industry response. They believe that those who would engage in electrnc comerce on the Web must realize that the Internet dramatically shifts the balance of power between a business and its customers, and therefore, radical new business strategies will be required for long-term success. They the most effective way for firms to engage in electronic commerce will depend upon their allowing the balance of power to shift toward more cooperative interactions between them and their customers.

The special issue concludes with two Forum articles that were written by cinference participoants. In “The Meaning of Anonymity in an Information Age,” philosopher Helen Nissenbaum asks What is anonymity? And, what are we seeking to protect when we propose to protect it? In Internet “Anonymity in Contexts” Christina Allen examines ways to design electronic forums that have different properties and rules regarding anonymous communication. For example, one adult chat room may allow people to use pseudonyms while a children’s room may not. 

Please check our Indiana University-Bloomington web site for news on forthcoming issues, calls for papers, and abstracts of articles from previous issues. Prospective authors may reach us via email at

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