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Swedes opting for online anonymity

Published onsdag 2 maj 2012 kl 15.15

Internet users and people who share files on the web are seeking anonymity on the net through online services to protect themselves from several relatively new laws that give police and courts wider access to information about users.

Several relatively new laws, such as the data storage directive, Ipred and the FRA are scaring a growing number of Swedes into hiding their identities online, according to a sociologist at Lund University who has studied the trend towards anonymity.

The legislative measures are intended to help law enforcement officials fight crime and terrorism, but opponents say the laws threaten privacy and will be used to crack down on file-sharers.

The data storage directive requires all Internet and phone service providers to store traffic information for six months, while the new FRA law gives Sweden's intelligence service, Säpo, and the police access to information from wiretapped phone calls, e-mail interceptions and other forms of intelligence obtained by the National Defence Radio Establishment, known as FRA.

The Ipred law, an EU directive aimed at protecting intellectual property rights, gives the courts the right to force Internet providers to provide information about IP addresses that illegally download copyrighted files.

A new survey out of Lund Univerity shows that about 700,000 Swedes actively hide their online identities through anonymity services. The survey is part of the research project Cyber norms. It shows that about 200,000 Swedes between the ages of 15 and 25 choose to be anonymous on the net with the help of services such as Relakks, Ipredator and Mullvad, which means mole in English. That corresponds to about 15 percent in the age group.

Måns Svensson, a sociologist in charge of the research project, says that young users seek anonymity at a greater rate because they use the Internet and engage in file-sharing more.

While they don't know how many people in the other age groups seek anonymity through online services, Svensson says it is likely because older people do not share files illegally to the same extent.

Recently the EU Court of Justice made it possible for the IPred law to go into effect in Sweden. As a result, broadband companies are forced to provide the identities of suspected file sharers. This is likely to accelerate demand for anonymity, says Svensson.

According to the researchers at Lund University, file-sharing is likely to become the most important driving force behind the anonymity services but that its use is also growing among those who don't share files.

Danny Aerts, president of stiftelsen.se, an organisation that administrates the Swedish Internet domains, also attributes the quest for anonymity to the increased monitoring and surveillance on the Internet.

As monitoring goes up, both by the state and from actors such as Facebook and Google, so will the demand for anonymity, Aerts told TT, adding that he's in favor of these services and cites the Arab Spring as an example.

When we talk about the Arab Spring everyone in Sweden thinks the ability to be anonymous is a good thing. And it would be strange if this didn't apply domestically, too, he says.

This isn't the first time an anonymity survey has been conducted in Sweden. Three other surveys on separate occasions asked about 1,000 young people aged 15 to 25 about their Internet habits and file-sharing. In the autumn of 2009, six months after Ipred came into effect, about 130,000 young people said they used anonymity services. That's about 10 percent of people in that age group.

Before the whole Ipred debate got started 8.6 percent of people in the same age group were using anonymity service, compared with 14.9 percent today.

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