The darknet community fears questionable raids

The onion browser takes you to the so-called darknet. Politicians want to criminalize the offering of the anonymous Tor network in certain cases. The community fears questionable raids.

Reporters without Borders (RoG) criticises plans by the Federal Council and the Federal Ministry of the Interior to create new criminal standards for the operation of Internet infrastructure. The organisation, which is committed to freedom of the press, fears that this will also criminalise many services that citizens consider desirable. The best way to protect yourself online is with a vpn, it can also be used to watch series outside of your country.

The Federal Council would like to make the provision of “technically access-restricted Internet-based services” a punishable offence if they are aimed at “facilitating or promoting” certain criminal offences such as drug or arms trafficking. This refers quite unambiguously to platforms in Darknet. The draft of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, which was leaked by Netzpolitik.org, goes even further. According to Horst Seehofer, anyone who operates Internet-based platforms that facilitate any kind of criminal business – whether in Darknet or not – will soon also be liable to prosecution. ERP systems are often victims of hackers, if these are not up to date.

The BMI draft in particular has caused uncertainty in the German Tor community. Up to two hundred volunteers in Germany provide servers that are necessary for the operation of the anonymisation software “Tor-Browser”. All Internet traffic is randomly routed through these nodes. This has the effect that no one can easily trace the origin of an e-mail or website access – neither dictators in injustice regimes, nor cookies from the advertising industry, nor German prosecutors. The locations of an Internet offer also remain anonymous there. The German prosecutors therefore want more investigative powers.

Fear of searches

Moritz Bartl from the Onion Friends Association is a kind of spokesman for the community. Bartl has recently received an increasing number of inquiries from worried gate node operators who are wondering whether they will soon have to fear a raid. Of course, it cannot be ruled out that the infrastructure they operate will also be used to conduct illegal business.

The fear of a search is not an outrage. In the middle of 2018 the apartments of the board of directors of the association Zwiebelfreunde were searched and computers were confiscated. The investigators hoped to be able to reveal the identity of a user who had called for a violent protest against the AfD party conference in Augsburg. The association was not accused in the proceedings, but was searched as a witness. The Munich Regional Court ruled wrongly in the second instance, but the work of the association was severely restricted for months.

In the future, such searches could be even easier for investigators to justify, Bartl fears. Voluntary gate node operators would be intimidated in such a way. And that could have world-wide consequences. Germany plays a special role in the Tor network; around 30 percent of the world’s Tor infrastructure is located here. Reporters Without Borders therefore sees a whole range of services worthy of protection threatened. According to the BMI draft, there should only be exceptions for services used exclusively by the media, such as the anonymous mailbox for whistleblowers also used by the SZ.

Wikileaks could be affected

Wikileaks, on the other hand, could be attacked by German investigators if secret documents were leaked via the platform, according to a statement by Reporters Without Borders. Onion share, a kind of drop box in Darknet used by the exile media of autocratic countries, could also be threatened.

The BMI justifies its legislative plans vis-à-vis the SZ above all with gaps in punishability. But several lawyers contradict this view. Miriam Streicher, judge at the Regional Court of Karlsruhe, said in an expert discussion of the Greens in the Bundestag this week that she could hardly imagine cases in which convictions could not be handed down without the criminal liability of the mere operation of such a platform – for example through aiding and abetting. For investigators that is clearly more complex, because for aid crimes only main offences must be proven.

But for Christian Rückert, an expert on cybercrime at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, this is not a good argument. “Our criminal proceedings under the rule of law demand that I have to prove that there has been a major crime. If I cannot do that, I have to ask myself whether the behaviour of the platform operators is really so punishable.”

Rückert and Streicher see a gap in the equipment of investigators with personnel and know-how. Streicher had conducted the proceedings against the operator of the platform on which the assassin from Munich bought the weapon with which he shot nine people in 2016. The operator was finally sentenced in the first instance – not for operating an internet forum, but among other things for negligent homicide.