Web proxy servers are not new. These servers, which serve as ‘middlemen‘ for accessing the web, are often used by corporations to accelerate web browsing through caching and to filter traffic. They’re also used by individuals looking for a bit of anonymity online.

I often use one since I live in a country that is sometimes blocked from using popular services that are based in the US.

But if you live in the US and use a proxy server, beware: the US Sentencing Commission is voting today on whether to consider the use of a proxy in connection with certain types of computer crimes evidence of ‘sophistication‘, a label which typically brings with it a sentence that’s increased by 25%.

Hopefully you aren’t committing crimes online but there are significant implications here for American web surfers.

Since proxies are so commonly used, often without the knowledge of the user, there’s the real risk that some poor criminal could find himself on the receiving end of an increased sentence unwittingly. Of course, for anybody who has fallen victim to online crime, that’s probably not of real concern, for better or worse.

But it goes beyond that. Some people see this as a veiled government attack on individuals looking for privacy online.

As John Morris of the Center for Democracy and Technology states:

It sends a bad message about protecting your own privacy. This is the government saying, ‘If you take normal steps to protect your privacy, we’re going to view you as a more sophisticated criminal.’

While it’s true that proxies are often used in an abusive manner, a lot of people use them for the best of reasons (eg. they’re scared of being tracked online). And with online privacy threatened on so many fronts, who can blame them? Will some people be scared away from using proxies in a legitimate, non-criminal manner out of fear that a colossal mistake could land them in prison as a ‘sophisticated‘ criminal with a harsh sentence? It’s possible.

One thing is clear: governments are only getting more involved on the internet and that’s going to have an impact on the ways we surf and conduct business online. From an EU proposal that would require users to approve every cookie that gets placed on their machines to the recent Federal Trade Commission announcement that it essentially wants to regulate marketing campaigns on blogs and social media outlets in the United States, it looks like the internet is going to become as regulated and bureaucratic as the offline world.

That’s unfortunate, as over-regulation and bureaucracy almost always lead to higher costs (both monetary and otherwise) and less competitiveness.

Photo credit: Anirudh Koul via Flickr.