UK: We can't outlaw anonymous Web services

There is consenus among lawmakers in the United Kingdom that encrypted, anonymous communications cannot be outlawed, a new British Parliament report says.

“There is widespread agreement that banning online anonymity systems altogether is not seen as an acceptable policy option in the U.K.,” said the report, released late Monday.

The message might give some comfort to privacy advocates after Prime Minister David Cameron threatened in January to ban anonymous messaging services like Snapchat and WhatsApp unless they provided access for Britain's intelligence agencies.

“Are we going to allow a means of communications which it simply isn’t possible to read?” Cameron asked. “My answer to that question is: ‘No, we must not.’”

Days later, Cameron lobbied President Obama to join him in a campaign to get tech companies to collaborate with government on criminal investigations. Without getting fully on board, Obama said he believed government should have some legal framework for accessing social media content.

Many major Silicon Valley players have implemented stronger encryption for their users since the revelations of widespread British and U.S. government spying.

The U.K. report specifically looked at the online anonymity software Tor, which routes users’ data through a variety of nodes to hide their digital footprint and identity.

Mostly using Tor, an anonymous subset of the Internet called the “darknet” has sprung up.

“The darknet helps citizens to protect their security and privacy and to circumvent censorship,” the report said. “It also facilitate organised crime, such as the billion dollar drug market known as Silk Road.”

Governments have increased their focus on Silk Road and darknet users in recent months. In November, a worldwide coalition of law enforcement agencies took down Silk Road 2.0 and over 400 addresses using Tor.

The report acknowledged the difficulties of tracking down criminals on the darknet.

“Identifying criminals using Tor is time consuming and it requires a high degree of skill,” it said.

But Tor’s ability to perpetuate crime must be measured against its benefits. It enables a free press and gives whistleblowers a safe outlet.

The British government has several options, the report said. Officials can work with Tor developers to better understand how criminals use it, or legislators can clarify the legal pathway for identifying Internet users.

But what they can’t do is ban Tor.

“There would be technical challenges,” the report said. “For example, when the Chinese government attempted to block access to Tor, Tor Project Inc. introduced secret entrance nodes to the Tor Network, called ‘bridges’, which are very difficult to block.”