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Anonymous email could be abolished

Continuing concerns over Internet crime could lead to the abolition of anonymous email... Will Knight reports

The ability to communicate anonymously online is being abused by criminals, including paedophiles, and should be abolished according to a European Parliament committee.

The Committee for Citizen's Freedoms Rights, Justice and Home Affairs, will advise the European Parliament on Monday to ban the use of anonymous email in order to increase online surveillance of those convicted of child sex offences across Europe.

If approved, the recommendation would effectively outlaw anonymous email communications for all European Internet users.

Currently ISPs in Britain are obliged to store logs of Internet activity for three months in accordance with a 1995 European directive. They are not required to hand over logs to the police, although most will co-operate with a police investigation. The European Parliament is currently discussing plans to give law enforcers the legal right to access traffic logs.

The Police do not commonly use the Internet to initialise investigations. This is left up to independent Internet watchdogs such as the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).

The Committee will also recommend that police units be established across Europe to combat child pornography. It will propose that Europe-wide registers of known sex offenders are created and that the public be encouraged to report evidence of child pornography on the Internet.

The IWF welcomes the recommendations citing the amount of illegal activity online that goes unnoticed. A spokeswoman for the IWF says the recommendations represent an important step forward in their battle against child pornography. "A centralised police unit is the most effective way of dealing with Internet crime, which will inevitably increase as the usage of the medium increases. Any such international co-operation is essential," she says.

The representative is, however, more cagey about the issue of abolishing anonymity. "We recognise the importance of tractability with regard to illegal content."

To some, increased monitoring of Internet users remains objectionable. These recommendations are likely to increase concerns over authorities building up user profiles based on Internet activity.

Malcom Hutty of Internet civil liberty group Stand.org.uk says that abolishing anonymity and a potentially dangerous invasion of privacy. "The notion of giving up everyone's anonymity to tackle one important but relatively infrequent crime shows no respect for proportionality," says Hutty. He adds that this is potentially a "gross invasion of privacy."

If anonymous email is made illegal and the police are given greater access to Internet traffic logs, this is likely to increase the use of anonymous browsers and encrypted email by those concerned about their privacy.

Britain is currently in the throws of a heated debate concerning Internet privacy after the Government passed legislation designed to give law enforcers unrestricted access to email encryption keys. The need to fight child pornography and organised crime on the Internet has often been used by the government to support this legislation although it has been branded unworkable by Internet experts and civil libertarians.

The EU's latest bright idea for legislation to bring the Internet under bureaucratic control is to pass legislation to outlaw 'anonymity' on the Net -- particularly in the use of email. But can this be made to work? And even if it could, which seems unlikely, is it right? TalkBack would like to hear your views.

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