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History Holds Tough Lessons for Anonymous Services

In the early 1990s, a young Finnish programmer named Julf Helsingius set out to prove a point: Anonymity, he believed, was fundamental to the then-nascent Internet, and we’d better get used to it. He built an “anonymous remailer,” known as anon.penet.fi, that allowed people to send emails or post messages to Usenet groups—the social networks of the pre-Web era—without revealing their names. It was a sensation, with about half-a-million users at its peak.

Today, as a new wave of anonymous services sweeps the Internet, it’s obvious that Mr. Helsingius was right. The Facebook paradigm of a real-name Internet, where online identity mirrors the real world, simply fails to capture the many ways that people want to interact in cyberspace.

Yet the legal, social and ethical issues that arise from online anonymity remain just as knotty and dangerous as they were in the days of anon.penet.fi. The history holds important lessons, especially for venture-backed businesses like Secret and Whisper that hope to make money by allowing people to leave their real names behind.

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