I had a very interesting and philosophical conversation the other day with Kon Leong, president and CEO of ZipLip.com. He stopped by my office during a press tour to talk about ZipLip and its services.
Our conversation started with the normal fuzzy yet pretty pictures that press tours are built on, but it quickly shifted to the deep dilemma that confronts anyone in the anonymous communications business.
ZipLip (www.ziplip.com) is less than 2 years old and has been offering services on the Internet since July 4, 1999. Apropos of the company's public launch date, ZipLip offers secure e-mail outsourcing services to individuals and organisations. Users connect to the ZipLip site using secure Web browsers to send and receive e-mail and to transfer files. If requested, ZipLip can also "shred" (the company's word) the documents after they are read. Individuals using the service can do so with identification or anonymously.
The need for secure and destroy-after-reading e-mail in a corporate setting has been made abundantly clear in the ongoing Microsoft vs. US government court case. For good, and sometimes not-so-good reasons, individuals also need secure e-mail. It is clear that people planning the next billion dollar.com company need to be sure their e-mail is secure. They may be less worried about being sure that old mail gets shredded, but they do not want outsiders listening in.
In the corporate world and for many individuals, it is important this mail not be anonymous (that is, it is important to know who sent the mail). But there are many reasons users may feel they need to send anonymous mail. People needing anonymity include those who want to interact with health resources (AIDS help centres, for example), whistle blowers (both criminal and corporate), battered women and many others. Other people might use anonymous services for very different purposes. Child pornography, hate mail, electronic stalking and terrorism are commonly cited examples.
People such as ZipLip's Kon are in a particularly tough spot. How should they act? Should they provide the ability of their users to remain anonymous, or should they insist on some type of identification from all their users? It is very easy to say anonymity on the Internet should not be allowed "for the community." But it would be just as easy to say the police should have cameras in all our houses to catch lawbreakers.
Leong can be likened to the lead character in the movie "The Conversation." He cannot ignore the evil that might be done through his services, but he must not ignore the good. In my opinion, the good outweighs the bad to such a degree that there is no question that the service should continue.
But that is easy for me, who does not run such a service, to say.
Disclaimer: Folks at the Harvard Law School will argue both sides of this question (sometimes at the same time). But the above comments are mine alone.
Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at email@example.com.