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"Don't Try to Control the Network Because it's Impossible Anyway"

Interview with Johan Helsingius on Anonymous Remailers

Volker Grassmuck
 IC Magazine, NTT Publishing

 Wherever you go on the matrix you carry with you, like a name tag, information on your login address. If you communicate in public places you leave behind a trail of information about yourself.

How much information can be retrieved about an individual by simply correlating messages in newsgroups and mailing lists was demonstrated dramatically by the case of - of all people - an employee of the CIA. In a legendary Internet Hunt, participants in the game were given a private e- mail address, and managed to dig up from nothing but publicly accessible sources 148 different pieces of information starting from his name, address, telephone number and employer via his educational history and the fact that he does not own a fax machine to the name of his fiancee. Comments Hunt organizer Rick Gates: "One can see that there's an awful lot of information that can be found on someone, even when restricted to freely accessible, publicly available Nets. I hope that people keep that in mind when they are posting to an email listserv, or newsgroup. They are really adding to the sum total of the Nets, and what they have to say in some limited discussion of an obtuse topic may be around for a long time." (ftp://ftp.cni.org/pub/net-guides/i-hunt/9306hunt.a)

 Networks are, by their nature, open. Privacy is not something built into their structure, but has to be created in an additional effort. Given some technical skills, it is fairly easy to intercept and read private e-mail messages. The answer to this is encryption, and the most common solution of choice is PGP. (The software that adds on to you mailer can be picked up at ftp://net-dist.mit.edu/pub/PGP.)

 While in person-to-person communications the important aspect to safeguard is privacy, the complementary value in public communications is anonymity. In the material world I can speak out in a public meeting, send letters to the media, or buy something in a store without revealing my name. There are occasions when I want to make a point or ask a question without anybody knowing who I am. I can make myself known if I wish, but the decision is up to me.

An Internet institution that has emerged to answer to this need is the anonymous remailer. Remailers allow to send anonymous or pseudonymous mail to other people or to mailing lists and Usenet news groups. The destination is included in the body of the message that is send to the remailer. The remailer then removes the original header containing the sender's address and routing path, and forwards it to the requested destination anonymously.

In the future, remailers might be used to send untraceable digital cash, and as reply receive the ordered informational goods, without the merchant being able to collect data on his customers - the same as in every store in the material world. They are also used to prevent large centralized agencies, whether governmental or corporate, from creating comprehensive communication profiles of individuals, to give individuals control over their own communication and information. And they are used for flooding newgroups with junk mail, threatening and harassing people, and exchanging pornography and illegal materials.

 There are currently about two dozen anonymous remailers operating on the Internet. Most of them run on hosts in the US, several in the Netherlands and one in Finland. Finland, due to early deregulation of its telecommunications landscape, has a long and active network tradition. Compared to the U.S., which has the highest absolute number of Internet hosts, Finland has actually a higher ratio of Internet hosts per head of population - one for every 102 people as to one for every 126 people in the U.S. (calculated from the most recent Internet Society host count and the CIA World Factbook).

 When I went to ISEA'94 in August 1994 I took the opportunity to talk to Johan Helsingius who runs anon@anon.penet.fi. It was the first remailer that allowed posting not only to a few but to nearly all newsgroups, and it introduced a password-protected pseudonym for its users so others can reply to their messages.

 Helsingius watched the networks evolve from the beginning on, starting with bulletin board systems in the early 1980s, and using one of the first ARPANET nodes in Finland. He operated one of the first Usenet nodes in Finland, importing news from Poland over an X-25 link. Today he runs EUnet, an Internet access provider in Helsinki.

A--What triggered the idea to create such an Internet service? What was the need that you felt for such a remailer?

 B--It's funny because the original need was a discussion in a Finnish language news group here in Finland. Some people from a university network really argued about if everybody should put their proper name on the messages and everybody should be accountable, so you could actually verify that it is the person who is sending the messages. And I kept arguing that the Internet just doesn't work that way, and if somebody actually tries to enforce that, the Internet will always find a solution around it. And just to prove my point, I spent two days or something cooking up the first version of the server, just to prove a point. I kept it running for a couple of weeks, and suddenly I started getting lots of mail saying we really need this service, this is really useful, so I just decided to keep running the remailer, and since then of course I've been improving the software. But the original idea was just to prove a point, to prove that you can't censor anything on the Internet because there is always a technological solution to circumvent any political or whatever censorship. It was a question of control, that somebody, people at the university network felt the need to control what is said on the network, and that people should be able to find the person who actually said it. And that's what I was arguing against, saying, you can't do it anyway, so don't try to control the network because it's impossible anyway. I think that's one of the strengths of the network, that nobody can control it.

A--That's one of the marvelous structural aspects of the Internet, that it's not a centrally managed commercial thing, it's not like Compuserve, but grew out of the researchers' community in a very anarchic, quasi-biological fashion.

B--Well actually, it's already turned into a commercial network. I know there are much more commercial users than academic users. It still retains the anarchy because there's nobody who can actually control the whole network. I think that's the main strength of the network. You can do anything on the network. Somebody who comes up with a good idea can actually implement it, and it actually spreads around, and you can always find a sort of quasi-technical solution to any problem, even political problems.

I mean, laws don't matter anymore, because the net isn't governed by any country, so the laws of any specific country just don't apply, which is a really big strength. I see it definitely happening where lots of countries try to restrict things, and say, /in our country you can't do this and this and this,. but there is no way they can stop the network. A very good case was in Canada, there was this case where, I don't remember the details, it was a court case where the Canadians imposed a media ban. Nobody was allowed to publish anything about the court proceedings. And of course what happened was that people in the States started publishing information on the network, and there was no way to stop it.

 A--Yes, I remember. And they actually censored newspapers and television channels...

 B--Exactly, but they never could censor the network. The same thing happened when there was an attempted coup in Moscow, where they actually cut off all traditional media, all telex lines went down, all phone lines went down, no information to any media came out of Russia, except on the nets where it was real-time reporting all the time. The information went back and forth. There was no way to stop the network, because if they tried to cut one line there was always a backup route somewhere, and information just kept flowing.

A-- Maybe you could give me some more examples of your experience with that server. How long is it up, by the way?

 B--It's been running for a year and a half now. Apparently there are something like 120,000 users. It's completely overloaded. Thousands and thousands of messages per day. There's no way for me to actually know what the server is being used for, except when somebody complains and I have to look into it and see if people actually posted something, because there's no way for me to monitor all the news groups and so on, and no use even trying. If somebody actually complains, I usually have to look into what's going on, and of course when somebody does something wrong and mails bounce I can see what's actually going on there. And I get lots of mail from people who tell me about why they use the server and why it's important.

There are things I really wonder about. It seems that people really go through a lot of effort and trouble to post pornographic images. Why? That's something I've never been able to understand. Why is it important for somebody to actually post a pornographic image somewhere, anonymously?

A--Pornographic images of themselves?

 B--No, something scanned from Playboy. What's the point? That's something I've never been able to understand, what makes you do something like that, what actual satisfaction you get out of doing something like that.

 A--The sex-oriented news groups are among the most active.

B--Definitely, and I can understand if you want to use it to discuss something. That's perfectly clear, it's a valuable use. I can understand somebody wanting to discuss something sexual anonymously, even post personal ads and so on. That's something I definitely can relate to and I think it's important, discussions, where most of the people ask questions, say, do you know any gay bars in Chicago, or whatever. Or just expressing their own sexuality, like are there any other people who like this brand of tobacco...

One interesting aspect is people do anonymous postings even in technical newsletters. There are programmers who post technical questions anonymously because they don't want their bosses to know that they don't know. Then there are all the recovery news groups, abuse news groups which are really important users for a server. Recovery from sexual abuse, recovery from drug use, AA groups and so on.

Another thing that I find really hard to understand, which is a pretty big use of the server, is for soc(ial).culture news groups, people from different cultures just bashing each other -- All you Jews are so and sos or All you Turkish bastards... Again it is a question of free expression. People use the server for quite a lot of that stuff. I think it goes as much to show something about a certain culture. I think that's a passing phase. It's going to take some time, but eventually people will get tired of just bashing other cultures. It's probably a good thing that they get their expressions.

 A--Do you think it has sort of a cathartic effect, if it gets out this way they won't go actually physically bashing people of other cultures?

 B--Yes, right. I think in the long term it's beneficial because it gives people an outlet for it. I always believe it's good to bring out things like that in the daylight because that actually allows you to maybe start processing it, see how people react to it, and so on. Most people think it's something that should be somehow controlled and kept out of the news groups. I'm not especially worried about it. You can always put people in kill files. We get lots of complaints about that. I try to do something about the worst cases, definitely. If somebody all the time keeps posting abuse articles in some cultural news group I usually send them a warning message, and in some cases even cut them off. If people wouldn't complain I would definitely not treat it. I am definitely a believer in full freedom of expression. However stupid your point might be, I still support your need to say it, even if it's just fuck you You probably have a good reason to say it.

A--But it does happen that you cut people off?

 B--Yes. If somebody just keeps continuously posting hundreds of fuck-you messages to a news group, then it disrupts normal traffic in the news group and something needs to be done. So I start by sending them mail that says, People really don't like this, will you please stop or I will do something about it. And if they then continue despite the warning, I just block them off from the server. That's something also that I receive lots of criticism about, because I really have a strong principle of never revealing the true identity of anyone. There are lots of people who think, if somebody actually does something bad using the server, I should reveal their identity. My point is, who gets to be the judge? The ultimate question is, what if they actually commit some crime? And I say, crime according to what law? Posting pornographic images is against the law in many countries. I can't stop them and judge.

A--I heard that you got a lot of flame as well, not only people saying yes, great, go on with it, we need this service.

B--Yes, definitely.

 A--What arguments were people giving in those flames?

 B--A lot of people were just arguing against it in principle, because there are still lots of people who feel you really have to have everybody accountable for everything they say. The argument there goes that if you don't have people accountable they can do really stupid things, like post stupid commercials to a million news groups. And the thing is, if you actually allow for a means to express their views without having to worry about their repercussions, you can always use it to express views that are really unpopular, let's say racist things. It is definitely a problem, and I just don't think there is any solution to it. You have to allow freedom of expression, and with freedom of expression there are all sorts of problems, but that's not special to the net, it's everywhere.

 A--Do you see technical solutions to that? Say that if you read a news group you set up a kill filter so every anonymous posting, for example, is taken out?

B--Exactly. And one important thing is, what I provide, even though it's called an anonymous service isn't actually that, it's a pseudonymous service where you actually have an identity. It's just that nobody knows who you are in reality, but you still have an identity. You can say that this guy who is called AN11195 is always posting shit, so just ignore him, but only him.

 A--And since others can reply to these pseudonymous postings they can actually flame their author if they feel like it. But in case you would want full anonymity you could use a chain of anonymous remailers.

 B--Yes, there are always technical things you can do to really hide who you are. If you are technically competent, anyone on the network can completely fake his identity. The network users have been able to do it all the time. There are always joke postings from /President, White House. or something. The really legendary one was in Holland from one of the EUnet guys. Back in the years when the Soviet Union was still the Soviet Union there was a posting from a guy from a Kremlin box. I mean, you can always fake those things, if you have the technical knowledge. What I'm doing is just providing the same thing for ordinary people who don't have the technical know-how.

 A--Technical solutions... to everything?

B--Eventually, yes, eventually.

 A--There is the kill file, there are the anonymous remailers that answer to a communicational, a person-to-person situation.

 B--Yes, but this is the interesting point with the Net. If there is a problem, if there is a need for a solution, somewhere out there among those tens of millions of people there's some bright guy in some garage somewhere, or in some university computer room who will come up with the solution, and that solution gets distributed instead of just being used locally. That's one of the real strengths of the network. If there's a problem, somebody finds a solution. It might take half a year or something, it might take several years. Somebody's going to come up with a workable solution. So if the problem turns out to be lots of commercial ads on the network, people are going to come up with better kill-file mechanisms. If people start to censor things on the network, there are going to be solutions like the anonymous remailers, or even, some of the people I'm working with do things like come up with ways to hide messages into picture files, so that if you need to transmit something really confidential on a network what you do is send a nice picture to your friend, and in there is hidden a text message. There's always going to be innovative technical solutions that get around the problems.

 A--Technical solutions to social problems... At an Internet event in Berlin, a Dutch friend of mine was talking and he said something like there is democracy built into the technology. And I was sitting next to him and thought, are we talking about technocracy here, or what is this? But if you start thinking about it, everything that comes to mind proves that, for example an equality of voices of individuals and big corporations.

 B--I had a discussion last week with somebody who was talking about teledemocracy and how this wonderful network stuff actually allows people to reach the politicians and decision makers and make their views known. And I thought, bullshit, that's not the way it's going to be. The politicians aren't going to listen to the people on the network anyway. There's always been ways for an ordinary man to reach the politician. He can always send a letter, he can send a fax, he can even call a secretary of the premier of the state or whoever, and nobody's going to listen anyway. That's not going to change even though he can send E-mail to the president. But the network allows people to forget about the government. You can actually do what you want without involving the government, which is the important issue. I don't care about local politics anymore. Why should I? If things in Finland get really bad I'll move to some other place. My friends will still be there on the network. My job will also be there on the network. Why should I care about local politics in Helsinki except that it probably makes bus fares more expensive. Because of the network I can now actually really vote with my feet. I don't need those politicians, I don't need to reach them. Why should I? They don't care anyway. Why should I care? That's what the network gives people - a means to actually circumvent governments and traditional power arrangements. They create their own power structures. This is going to change a lot of stuff in society. Both the decision makers and big companies have to respond because finally people actually have choices, much more choice than they had before.

 A--People looking at this through their experience with mass media argue that grassroots democracy won't work, because people will vote for the cheapest trash, the lowest common denominator. But in a medium where people don't just passively consume the picture is completely different. For example the institution of the FAQ file (Frequently Asked Questions) is exactly the opposite, it's the condensed collective wisdom. bringing together something that no individual participant in this news group knew at the beginning, but by putting it all together you get something that maybe these think tanks and brain pools that the companies have are trying to achieve.

 B--I think the perfect example is the Internet itself. That was a grassroots thing. It was originally local connections, first among universities, then sort of occasional companies joining in and putting in their point-to-point connections and it just grew out to be this enormous worldwide network without anyone organizing it, without anybody making a plan for it. It just happened, it was a grassroots movement. You see it on the Internet all the time. FAQs are a good example, the World Wide Web servers, everything. The news groups themselves, they are grassroots movements, so you definitely see it working. The important thing is that you need a worldwide channel for these grassroots movements. You need a way where you can actually suddenly get ten thousand people to cooperate on something, and we have that in the network. That's something we never had before.

 A--There remains the question of authority. I heard that there had been an appeal to some sort of higher authority of the Internet to shut off your server. What is the story behind that, what happened there?

B--The authority they actually appealed to was the main administrator of the Finnish domain, which at that time was the Finnish university network. And it actually had some effect because at that point the network connection I had was partly shared by the university network, so it created a sort of difficult political situation. I decided to shut down the service for a couple weeks until I could get a fully commercial connection that didn't have anything to do with the university network. Yes, there are always places where you can put pressure and get somebody above the network, but usually that person can find an alternative means to get up to the network. There's still no way to actually agree to control anything. There was nothing they could do except pass on the complaint to the university network administrators, and that could have created a political problem so I shut down the server for a couple weeks, that's all. So there still isn't control and authority.

A--Do you think that with maybe commercial, maybe even political, legal pressure becoming stronger, if not a network court, then some other form of authority to mediate conflicts - which if it is an authority must have means to enforce decisions - will arise eventually?

 B--I don't think so. Well, it's going to happen locally. The Internet is always going to consist of separate service providers, and different service providers are going to have different rules, so there are going to be big commercial companies running big networks who are really careful about what they allow because they don't want any bad PR or anything, who are going to have really strict rules about what you are allowed to do and what you are not allowed to do. There are going to be other big commercial operators who say, We just can't make any rules because as soon as we try to make any rule, somebody's going to sue us, so the only policy we can follow is to pass everything and not take any responsibility for the contents. And there are always going to be small providers who say, Well, we just don't care. So somebody might get cut off the network by some provider, but he can always find an alternative way. I don't think anyone will be able to create a central authority. I don't see it happening.

Copyright is a typical example where most countries nowadays seem to agree on common guidelines, mostly because big corporations everywhere lobby for it, and something like this could definitely happen on the Internet, and with other things as well. It's going to be a really slow process and I think the Internet is going to move so much faster that the legislation is never going to be able to catch up.

 A--There was one solution outside the net that emerged for empty media and for photocopying machines. I heard that there was a similar system in Finland. In Germany there's the VG Bild and VG Wort [Verwertungs- Gesellschaft - utilization society for image and word], which are meta-organizations of writers, journalists, photographers, and there's something similar for musicians and composers. They collect a couple of pfennings for every photocopy, for empty audio and video cassettes, and then it's distributed via a statistical key to everybody who contributed something to the pool of information that could be copied. It makes it legal for everybody to copy things, and at the same time it provides the authors with some money. We're not only talking about big corporations getting richer, but also individual authors who produce something, and have a valid interest in getting some returns and being able to live off their work. Something similar on the net could be maybe a traffic charge per packet. Everybody who has registered some shareware information or software, that he allows others to freely pick up, would get a little share of the collected money.

 But from a different angle: how about something most people would agree should be regulated, let's say child pornography?

 B--Lots of countries definitely agree that this is not something they should allow on the network. However they still won't be able to control it because there is no solution. It's not a question of just finding a way to compensate somebody for it, it's something you really need to block, something you need to prevent. Even if the really unlikely thing would happen and every country in the world would agree to some international agreement where they would ban child pornography in their country and on all networks in their country, there will still be pirate radio stations and technical solutions. There's already been a group that is working on things where you can actually hide a physical location from the Internet side. If you get enough servers, you get a thousand people who agree on this, to put up a sort of meta-server that is composed of all these thousands of servers who switch all the time so that there is no way to track down anything. They can always find technical solutions. The pirate radio stations were a typical example. They could stay outside territorial waters and have a radio transmitter that was strong enough. In the same way you can come up with ways to put things on the network without having a physical location. Then nobody's going to be able to track you down and stop you.

 A--Let's switch sides and look at it from the interest of parents, for example. Do you have children?

 B--No, I don't, but I can definitely relate to the problem of parents wanting to control what their children get to see and at what age and so on. That's a problem that's really hard to solve, but it's a problem that's not unique to the network in any way. How do you prevent your five-year-old kid from watching porn movies on the pay-TV channels? But it's the responsibility, I think, of the parents, not the society. Personally I don't believe it's the society who should get to decide what my children get to see. To some extent, and this is completely my personal view of this, you can't prevent your children from seeing the world in the way it is. What you can do is provide the support to interpret it. There's lots of violence out there, there's lots of sex out there, there's lots of crime out there. You can't hide it away. At some point they are going to see it anyway. What you can do is provide a save environment and help them process it, give them the emotional support to deal with it, which is what we need to do anyway. At some point we need to deal with all that stuff out there.

 A--Where to from here?

 B--As to what I'm going to do personally, I don't know. The next generation of software still needs improvement, and I have all these ideas for new, improved features, but these are technical improvements mostly. I see that as a project that is almost done, doesn't need too much work any more. I'm probably going to come up with some fancy new idea, but still don't know what it's going to be. It's been running for almost a year and a half, so it's about time to come up with something new.

 I have this vision, I mean the global village is a cliche, but it's definitely happening. I have this sort of horror vision of climbing somewhere in Tibet in the mountains, going to this monastery somewhere high up in the mountains and finding all these monks watching CNN and playing on the Internet. That's the world we live in right now, where you still have the local cultures but you also have this global culture where physical distances don't matter anymore, and you get all these subcultures and cliques on the network who aren't actually limited geographically anymore and I think it's really changing the world. If you're born in a small village somewhere in some really conservative country, and let's say you're a homosexual or something. Now you have MTV, you have networks where you actually can see that there are lots of other people like you, and that's a way of living. You don't have to live the way everybody else in your village lives, and that's really changing the world. I see it happening now.

 A--Very very very exciting what is going on here, and very interesting to be able to experience that first hand as it is happening.

 B--Right. I mean, I have no idea where we are going to be in two years, but it's definitely going to be interesting.


For information on how to use this anonymous remailer send empty mail to help@anon.penet.fi.