Recently by Bill Rounds: Occupy Wall Street Protester Privacy
Free speech is threatened when corrupt forces can pressure the means of distributing speech. Corrupt governments all over the world, or corrupt elements within governments, use the methods at their disposal to silence uncomfortable speech. One of the main methods they use is to threaten the source of speech.
Anonymous speech is important, even for more mundane reasons than scathing political criticism. Advocates of medical marijuana, proponents of evolution, gay rights activists, critics of local police, and many others may need the protection of anonymous speech to protect themselves while they voice their opinion. Efforts to censor online speech are doomed to fail because people will find ways to publish unflattering material online without leaving any trace of identity behind.
To publish a website, there are several points of weakness where identifying information could be gleaned. Political activists and whistleblowers will be able to easily circumvent identity requirements at each one of these points, allowing them to anonymously publish material online with an anonymous website.
Anonymous Website Domain Name
A website needs a domain name (one of those .com things) which must be bought and paid for through a domain registry like GoDaddy. Most domain registries allow people to protect their identity by using a domain registration proxy. Using these proxies is not sufficient to protect identity because identifying information must still be shared with the proxy, which can be pressured to reveal it.
To prevent the domain registry from revealing their identity to anyone, political activists will simply enter pseudanonymous information, like Publius or Silence Dogood. If they are really sneaky they may even enter the information of a competitor to register their domain or use an anonymous domain registrar.
Anonymous Website Payment
An important link in the chain is payment for services. Even if a pen name is provided, the person paying for the domain name could easily be tracked down by ruthless government officials by tracking down the source of payment, making an anonymous website less anonymous. To avoid leaving an audit trail back to their own financial accounts, political journalists may pay for their domain name with a money order paid for in cash, use a prepaid credit card (which they paid cash to acquire) or pay with Bitcoins. There are several companies that offer domain name registration for Bitcoins. If they send payment from a Bitcoin address that has not been published anywhere else, it will be hard to trace payments to them.
Domain registrars need to communicate with owners to provide information, remind them about renewals, and other things. Most of that communication is done by email. Whistleblowers will easily be able to set up an anonymous email address with any free email service.
Anonymous Website Hosting
Another critical part of maintaining a website is a server to host the website. Most websites are hosted by a web hosting company. As with domain registry, activists will use pseudonyms and anonymous email addresses to create their accounts to host their politically sensitive websites. And, they will pay with cash, prepaid credit cards or Bitcoins for the web hosting service.
Anonymous IP Address
As an extra layer of protection, anytime smart political dissidents connect to the domain registrar, set up or log into their email, connect to their web hosting company, or log into their website to post information, they will use anonymous web surfing techniques. Tor is free and easy, proxy servers are available all over the world. VPNs, especially those based offshore, will prevent authorities searching through service provider records from discovering the IP address of political activists. These methods are also a way to circumvent government blocked sites, a common practice in places like China.
Even if a clever political critic takes all of these measures, they are of course still subject to censorship from corrupt pressure on service providers to cut off service. The domain could be seized by government officials or the web host server could be confiscated.The activist themselves would still be protected, and they would be able to republish their information in other locations.
Even in the absence of legal action, a domain registrar, or a web hosting company can always be pressured to take information down. Offshore companies in jurisdictions that are unfriendly to the criticized government may be harder to pressure.
Free speech and the ability to dissent is threatened by censorship that results from threats of imprisonment, violence and assassination. Those threats are less effective to prevent people from publishing on the internet when people can easily publish information completely anonymously. For more techniques on protecting anonymity, check out the book How To Vanish and the upcoming report for political activists on Anonymous Internet Publishing.
Reprinted with permission from How to Vanish.
Bill Rounds, J.D. is a California attorney. He holds a degree in Accounting from the University of Utah and a law degree from California Western School of Law. He practices civil litigation, domestic and foreign business entity formation and transactions, criminal defense and privacy law. He is a strong advocate of personal and financial freedom and civil liberties.