Have We Reached The End of the Anonymous Internet?
I have been around the internet since before there was a “world wide web”, tube videos, or apps. My first account dates back to the early 90s, before the internet was easy to get onto. For the most part, you had to go through a school or one of the few telnet providers to get an account. That would get you pretty much email and the ability to use tools of the day like Archie, Veronica, and the like.
One of the more interesting tools of the time was a thing called “finger”. You could finger someone (sounds kinky these days) and find out information on them based on the email. It would include their name, the provider that put them online, and other contact information. For many people, Finger would include their school department, phone number, and the like. For want of a better description, the internet was a community, and everyone knew everyone, or could at least find out. Pretty much the only way to go truly anonymous was to use email services like penet.fi or similar.
Enter the commercial internet in the mid 90s, spam mail, scraping, and soon enough finger went away. No longer could you easily find out who someone was. The internet exploded and became the biggest anonymous community on the planet, where nobody seems to know anyone, really, unless they specifically tell them. Proxies, redirection services, and anonymous surfing tools have been used by people to hide themselves even more. Some people consider the anonymous factor of the internet not only it’s key to growth, but also a sort of “right” of the user not to disclose themselves. Privacy laws in various countries (especially in the European Union) make it illegal to disclose information about users. Some ISPs go so far as not to retain log in records so that they cannot be summoned to provide user information.
However, all this anonymous has brought on major problems. When many people think of the internet, they think of fraud. From the incredibly stupid 419 scams (pre-pay someone so they can send you millions of dollars… DUH!), to credit card fraud, to endless numbers of phishing scams and the like. All of these things hinge on the perps being able to collect the information or to communicate with the victims anonymously. Many of them require hacked servers, proxy accounts, redirections, and other schemes, all depending on the anonymous nature of the internet.
Even the more secure online retailers like Amazon.com are not immune to the scammers, with some reports suggesting that last year Amazon might have lost hundreds of millions of dollars to scams and fraud.
All of this traces back to the anonymous factors of the internet. ISPs often don’t log their users, or don’t easily divulge this sort of information. Companies and individuals often use anonymous proxy services (which hides your usage through another “portal”), VPNs, and other techniques to disguise their origin. The Pirate Bay, faced with mounting legal issues in their home country started offering totally anonymous pay access VPN to help people hide their usage (and piracy).
Business is held back dramatically by these fraudsters, making it very difficult to offer any digital online services except in hyper secure walled gardens, often requiring that the physical connection to the internet is either totally trackable, or that it is an ISP’s internal customer. Otherwise, it is a wild west of anonymous connections, free email accounts, proxies, and the like that allow the scammers to hide out. Digital media is almost a non-business on the internet, because anonymous piracy is effectively killing the market with endless free media.
There is now a move by some movie producers (and porn companies, often at the forefront on this stuff) to mass sue file traders and pirates. While these are proving to be unpopular with the scammers and thieves, it appears to be something that will in the long run work out. The US government has been considering methods to quickly block access to pirate sites, and raids in the EU against many of the major zero day “release” sources for movies have happened and will likely continue. With a weakened worldwide economy, there is more pressure than ever for governments around the world to stand up and do something to stop the widespread piracy which is hurting markets in these products.
Enjoy your anonymous while you can, because it isn’t going to last!