Anonymous Internet: Tool of the Oppressed, and Pornographers?

Here’s a starting point for a good classroom discussion.

A story in today’s New York Times is called “How to Outwit the World’s Internet Censors”. It’s mainly about ways net-savvy folks in China might be able to circumvent their government’s stranglehold on the internet.

The OpenNet Initiative (www.opennet.net), an international human rights project linking researchers from the University of Toronto, Harvard Law School and Cambridge University, tracks Internet censorship and the techniques used to evade it. To surf the Web in China and elsewhere without censorship and in marginal safety, said John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor and a member of the initiative, the primary tool is an old standby: the proxy server.

A proxy server is simply a generic computer through which people who want to be anonymous drive Web traffic before it reaches their own machines. This helps dissociate a computer address from the Web sites its user has visited.

It’s not perfect. You never know, for instance, how trustworthy any proxy really is, and servers go up and down unpredictably. But people regularly use proxy servers for all kind of reasons — from the political to the pornographic.

So, companies and other organizations that supply proxy servers, or that supply software designed to mask a computer’s location on the net, are doing a big favour to both a) people living under repressive governments, and b) people who want to be able to traffic in child pornography (for example). And it’s very unlikely that those companies & organizations will be able to claim that their services & products are only used for the good purposes, and never for the bad.

So, here’s the question for class discussion: is a company supplying such products and services doing a good thing?

Links:
Electronic Fronteir Foundation
The OpenNet Initiative
Wikipedia entry on Proxy Servers
Wikipedia entry on Anonymity
Google resources on fighting Child Pornography

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