American tech companies, especially those running social networking sites, often pride themselves on giving voice and information to oppressed netizens around the world. Many commend Twitter’s role in facilitating coordination and information flow during the 2009 Iranian presidential election process. Even the U.S. State Department acknowledged this role when it asked the microblogging site to hold off on a software update so as not to interfere with use by Iranian protesters. Twitter is currently banned in Iran. Also in 2009, the Chinese government blocked access to Facebook in order to curtail communication between independence activists rioting in Xinjiang. Twitter, Google search, and Youtube are blocked behind the Great Firewall of China to this day.
Anonymous web browsing, such as onion routing via Tor or a comparable mechanism, provides a route around censorship and persecution. Individuals can breathe free on American-run sites, they just have to wear a hoodie.
Yet, according to a recent paper, some of the world’s largest sites are cutting off access to anonymous users. Site providers can easily detect when a user is accessing it from an anonymous origin, and now many are restricting certain uses or precluding access altogether. The authors describe this as “second-class treatment.”
Google is one site that limits search functions to anonymous users. Some companies have done the opposite. In 2014, Facebook provided a “hidden service,” where users can access the site anonymously and not be curtailed by algorithms that might otherwise block them for fraudulent use. Mark Zuckerberg once said, “How can you connect the whole world if you leave out 1.6 billion people?”
This state of affairs is a common one in the privacy v. security debate. Blocking anonymous use is meant to curtail criminal use. This comes at the cost of denying innocent users, such as those seeking a refuge of communication and connection to the world when oppressive regimes won’t allow it.
It is up to American companies, not the American government, to decide whether to stamp the ticket.