Anonymity online

Project title:
Identifying Internet users: technical, legal and economic analysis of the consequences on privacy, fundamental freedoms, innovation and business models.

12 months (January-December 2010)

Person in charge:
Silvia Bisi

Objectives and results:
The study moves from a specific issue, that is a complex set of legislative obligations posed by Italian Decree 27th July 2005, n. 144 (then Law 31st July 2005, no. 155). This law was intended to be an emergency measure: it came into force as a reaction to the terrorist attacks in London in July 2005, and was designed and widely understood as a transitional legal instrument to prevent further terrorist attacks (also) through a penetrating control over telecommunication services. This transitional nature emerges clearly from the stenographic reports of the conversion into law stage, and it's also quite evident the parliamentary majority and opposition conviction to deal with a “far-from-perfection” and only provisional text. This point of view seems useful to give sense to a legislative frameworks which, while transformed over time into ordinary, still remains without real comparisons in other democratic countries and currently conditions Internet access on the strong identification of Internet users (via picture I.D., or, more recently, via SMS - for Italian SIMs only - and even via credit card numbers in some cases).

While enhanced safety is certainly a worthy societal objective, the consequences on privacy and other fundamental freedoms of citizens, but also on innovation and business models, have so far not been investigated. Among the issues involved are: the widespread availability of Wi-Fi in Italy, the adoption of advanced technologies, such as wireless mesh networks, the likelihood that shopping malls or bars offer free Internet connection to their customers. A rational costs-benefits analysis, therefore, has so far not been possible, preventing the identification of solutions representing a widely agreed upon trade-off between, on one side, enhanced protection from criminal activities and, on the other side, individual and entrepreneurial fundamental liberties.

Purpose of the first part of the research, which has been dedicated to a deepen analysis of the present legal framework on Internet users' identification in Italy, was to sharpen as much as possible limits, boundaries and duties, as a necessary precondition for a broader reflection on the topic of online anonymity, and the role played by the Internet in relation to the exercise of certain fundamental rights. This first analysis has been summarized in a working paper.

The next, ongoing steps consist in a comparative analysis of similar legal frameworks (if any) in other OECD countries to offer a complete overview of the role of anonymity in the present interconnected and unbounded world. In particular it will try to answer the question if online anonymity is really possible (in a both technical and legal perspective) and desirable: a special attention will therefore be paid to the tension between anonymity as a mean (if not just as a right in itself) to exercise fundamental freedoms (such as freedom of expression and of information), and as a way to avoid punishments for abuses.

The final outcome of the research will consist in a journal paper and/or report (both in English and Italian) and will be issued by the end of December 2010.

About Silvia:
Silvia is a Research Fellow of the Nexa Center for Internet and Society. She’s a lawyer, with a Post-graduate Master of first level in “IT Law and Legal Informatics” and a Ph.D. on the same subject from the University of Bologna. Her research interests are mainly focused on data protection issues and, more generally, ICT and fundamental freedoms issues.
Contact: [name] [dot] [surname] [at] polito [dot] it

More information on the Italian page.