Last Friday's decision by a Finnish Internet provider to shut down its anonymous e-mail forwarding service is drawing concern from electronic privacy activists.
The service, known as anon.penet.fi, was the most popular remailer in the world among Net users, who used it to disguise their e-mail addresses when sending messages. Johan Helsingius, owner of Helsinki Net provider Penetic, set it up as a public service three years ago to support electronic conversations on sensitive topics, primarily between human rights activists and victims of domestic abuse.
David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, notes, "He had several hundred thousand users having ongoing conversations that have now abruptly been put to an end."
As one writer put it, it's "like a post office just dropped off the face of the earth."
After accusations that the service was being used to transmit child porn, Helsingius restricted it last year to forward only text. But the problems didn't end there. Anon.penet.fi became a target of the Church of Scientology after ex-Scientologists in the U.S. used it to post secret church scriptures onto newsgroups. Last February, church lawyers convinced Finnish authorities to force Helsingius to reveal the actual e-mail address of one of the posters.
This isn't the end of anonymous transmission on the Net, however. Other such remailers continue to operate in other countries, and have a general tendency to sprout up like weeds, so it can't be too long before Helsingius' users find another route to communicate with each other.
Reached by NOW in Helsinki, Helsingius says he closed the service owing to an ever-increasing workload and uncertainty surrounding the legal status of anonymous e-mail, at least in Finland.
"The telecommunications laws have been restricted to only cover traditional media", says Helsingius. "There's a need to enlarge the scope of the privacy laws, but that work hasn't been done yet."