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Conversations in cyberspace?

By Scott Bradner

I had a very interesting and philosophical conversation with Kon Leong the other day. Kon is the president and CEO of ZipLip, Inc. He stopped by my office during a press tour to let this columnist know about ZipLip and its services. We started out with the normal fuzzy but pretty pictures that press tours are built on but quickly shifted to talking about the deep dilemma that confronts anyone in the anonymous communications business.

ZipLip ( is less than two years old and has been offering services on the Internet since July 4, 1999. Apropos of their launch date, ZipLip offers secure email outsourcing services to individuals and organizations. Users connect to the ZipLip site using secure web browsers to send and receive email and to transfer files. If wanted, ZipLip can also "shred" (their 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 email in a corporate setting has been made abundantly clear in the ongoing Microsoft vs. the US government court case.

For good, and sometimes not so good reasons, individuals also need secure email. It is clear that people planning the next billion dollar .com company need to be sure that their email 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 that this mail not be anonymous, i.e. it is important to know just who sent the mail. But there are many reasons that users may feel they need to send anonymous mail. People needing anonymity include those who want to interact with health resources (AIDS help centers 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 like 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 that anonymity on the Internet should not be allowed 'for the community,' it would be just as easy to say that the police should have cameras in all our houses to catch lawbreakers.

Kon can be likened to the lead character in the movie The Conversation. He can not 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: Folk at the Harvard Law School will argue both sides of this question (sometimes at the same time) but the above comments are mine alone.