March 6, 2006 | By Cindy Cohn

Consumer Alert: AdviceBox.com Isn't Anonymous Email

EFF is warning the public about a so-called anonymous email service located at Advicebox.com. Advicebox.com's tagline is "Anonymous email made easy" but this service does not provide real anonymity -- it's a trap for the unwary and should not be used by battered spouses, whistleblowers and others who need real protection.

We were alerted to AdviceBox.com trap when we were approached by an anonymous critic who believed the tagline, paid the fee and used the service to send an "anonymous" extremely critical email about a former employer. The employer ran to court, and AdviceBox.com handed the critic's name over to the former employer giving our critic less than a three days notice -- not nearly enough time to find an attorney and make a motion to protect his identity. He has lost his current job as a result.

So has AdviceBox.com violated its promise? Certainly if you look at the way this service is marketed. The Website is filled with stuff like this:

"Send your anonymous email here!"

and this

"What is anonymous email? The ability to send email without revealing
your identity to the recipient."

But as Tom Waits once noted, what the large print giveth, the small print taketh away. AdviceBox.com doesn't really provide anonymous email -- email where the recipient cannot find out your identity.

The small print in the terms of service make this clear:

6. Member Conduct
. . . You acknowledge and agree that Advicebox may preserve Content and may also disclose Content if required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to:

(a) comply with legal process; (b) enforce the TOS; (c) respond to claims that any Content violates the rights of third-parties; or (d) protect the rights, property, or personal safety of Advicebox, its users and the public.

So AdviceBox.com won't protect you if anyone "claims that any content violates the rights of third parties." And what critical speech isn't vulnerable to claims that it violates the rights of people being criticized? Advicebox.com will respond to "legal process" like subpoenas, but we've long seen that legal process is used to silence criticism. It's difficult to see how Advicebox.com's service is any more protective of your identity than simply choosing the name smoochy@myisp.com. Most ISPs don't go around handing out their customer's identies either.

People who need real anonymity would be much better off setting up a free webmail account without giving identifying information and using Tor to hide their IP address. This will not only give them better protection, it will save them the $4.95 per month that AdviceBox charges.

BTW, we tried to contact AdviceBox's counsel about this before the Doe's name
was turned over. They didn't return our call.

[UPDATE: Counsel for Doe, the amazing Charles Mudd , informs us that despite AdviceBox's failure to give sufficient notice, he was able to get an emergency motion on file. AdviceBox then handed the information over to the ex-employer immediately upon receiving notice that the emergency motion was denied, despite knowing that Doe wanted to appeal. So much for caring about anonymous speech]


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