Patrick O'Donovan, a parliamentary member of Ireland's current ruling party, Fine Gael, has called for a crackdown on open-source internet browsers, which he says allows users to be anonymous and partake in illegal activities.
Examples of open-source browsers include Chromium, Konqueror, Lynx, and Mozilla Firefox. The extended support release version of Firefox is what is used, albeit slightly modified, in the anonymous The Onion Router (Tor) network.
"An online black market is operating, which protects the users' anonymity and operates across borders through the use of open-source internet browsers and payments systems, which allow users to remain anonymous. This effectively operates as an online supermarket for illegal goods such as drugs, weapons, and pornography, where it is extremely difficult to trace the identity of the buyers," he said in a statement.
While not explicitly naming it, the most commonly known black market was Silk Road — it operated on the Tor network, but was shut down in October last year by US law enforcement agencies.
"It appears the solution was temporary, as replacement browsers quickly appeared to ensure the continuance of the illegal trade," O'Donovan said.
However, no such browsers have been shut down as a result of US law enforcement actions, and, even if they had been, browsers alone cannot offer anonymity. Instead, anonymity is provided at the network layer via the Tor network.
O'Donovan later tweeted that his concerns had actually related to anonymous networks.
My concern relates to use of anonymous networks for illicit online trade. Substance of my concern stands Need to brush up on my TechSpeak— Patrick O'Donovan (@podonovan) January 15, 2014
Even if the focus is only on anonymous networks, shutting down services like Tor will have wider implications for users that draw on it for legal means. Tor itself states that its users include families, businesses, activists, and media, as well as military and law enforcement agencies. US whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning are both thought to have used the network to communicate with journalists.
According to the Tor Project, a branch of the US Navy uses its network for intelligence gathering, and its teams used Tor while deployed in the Middle East. Furthermore, other law enforcement agencies allegedly use the network to anonymise their surveillance activities on known criminals so that they do not unnecessarily alert them to their presence via government-owned IP addresses.
Despite a shutdown of Tor placing these legal activities in jeopardy, O'Donovan is pushing for the matter to be examined by the Irish Committee on Communications, of which he is a member.
"I believe that the committee should invite relevant agencies, including the Gardaí, customs, and officials from relevant government departments, to participate."
He is also hoping to get other EU nations involved by first starting with his country's ministers.
"I also intend to raise the matter in the Dáil with both the ministers for justice and communications, with a view to seek assurances that an EU-wide response is developed to respond to the operation of open-source internet browsers which protect anonymity in order to facilitate illegal online activity."