Civil liberties groups are opposing EU proposals threatening anonymity on the Internet.
In a draft report about the online distribution of child pornography, the EU's Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs has decided that "the sending of anonymous Email (should be) prohibited."
Anonymous mail can now be sent using an anonymous remailer - a software package accessible via a Web browser that strips Email of information that would reveal the identity of the sender.
Web-based Email accounts or those available from Internet service providers (ISPs) are not anonymous, as the provider usually logs the sender's Internet address and ISPs generally record the caller to dial-up customers.
"Anonymity is important both to free speech and privacy," said Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK).
He called the proposed legislation "too simplified and certainly not justified".
"I have not seen a wide discussion of this issue within the report, and certainly the committee did not take into account the European Convention on Human Rights," he said. "The committee did not even take into account the work of the Council of Europe in relation to Internet data protection and privacy."
The debate on anonymity overlaps another over encryption, which is often used to protect a user's identity.
Police often argue that encrypted and anonymous Email is used by paedophiles and other criminals to commit crimes via the Internet. The draft legislation echoes that view in saying: "Prosecution is impossible if electronic mail can be sent anonymously."
But there is actually little evidence to support links between Internet anonymity and crime. Akdeniz said: "There are many cases of child pornography involving the Internet, and (only) in very few I believe the use of encryption was an issue."
In addition, anonymity is essential in whistle-blowing, political expression and similar touchy situations. The most recent use of an anonymous service to protect people from political reprisals is the Anonymizer service info.anonymizer.com/kosovo.shtml set up for the war in Kosovo, which provides anonymous Email and access to online information and discussions to both Kosovans and Serbs.
Akdeniz added that anonymity's "benefits far outweigh its negative usage.
Law enforcement is already capable of dealing with child pornography on the Internet, and banning anonymity over the Internet will not be an effective tool for it."
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