On January 25, Anonymous, the international hacktivist collective, declared war on the U.S government. In the past two years, more than 20 Anonymous acolytes have been arrested in a string of high-profile operations, most notably disrupting online service of PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa in retribution for blacklisting WikiLeaks, and hacking a defense intelligence firm’s server and using the company’s credit card records to donate $1 million to war-related charities. Aaron Swartz, a figurehead of the Free Internet Movement who was facing 35 years in prison for downloading the online academic library JSTOR, committed suicide last month. Now, in honor of its fallen brethren, members of Anonymous say they have hacked and downloaded reams of compromising government documents, and likened the stolen data to “fissile material for multiple warheads” aimed at the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s the latest escalation in an unpredictable rise. Without formal organization or leadership, Anonymous has turned technological acumen and a general disavowal for the law into increasingly deliberate acts of political defiance.
As of yet, no one outside of Anonymous and the federal government can say exactly what’s in the cracked documents, and in an open letter, Anonymous announced its demands for keeping it that way. It mainly called for reforms to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a 1986 statute that outlines criminal penalties for accessing “without authorization” a “protected computer.” Outlawing digital trespassing seems perfectly reasonable, but courts have interpreted unauthorized access as any violation to a site’s terms of service—those rules outlined in small print just above the “I accept” box. A Missouri mother named Lori Drew was prosecuted under this section of the CFAA for helping her daughter create a fictitious MySpace account to torment a classmate, who as a result committed suicide, but it equally criminalizes everything from padding your image on an online dating site to someone under the age of 18 using Google. Anonymous said this gives the DOJ too much leeway, “creating in effect vast swathes of crimes, and allowing for selective punishment.” CFAA sentencing guidelines count infractions on a running tally as well, and each infraction carries upwards of 20 years in prison. Anonymous demanded greater proportionality, so that the prosecution of cyber crimes is “not used as a weapon of government to make examples of those it deems threatening to its power.”
While Anonymous was busy taking the DOJ hostage, U.S. legislators had begun drafting a rather copacetic reform bill nicknamed, “Aaron’s Law.” Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Zoe Lofgren, both West Coast Democrats, co-sponsored the bill, and submitted it for feedback on the social news site, Reddit. Given the site’s web-obsessive readership, it’s almost certain that users who had participated in Anonymous operations offered comments and criticism. The two lawmakers incorporated a number of suggested revisions, and the current bill would more strictly define unauthorized access as "the circumvention of technological access barriers." In other words, it specifically criminalizes breaching a site’s security, as opposed to simply accessing certain kinds of information or breaking a site’s terms of service. Also, changing a MAC or IP address, the unique identifiers assigned to users on a network and two major barriers to being “anonymous” on the web, would not violate the act. Though the bill does not alter sentencing guidelines, it narrows the scope of potential online crimes to the point that it nearly meets a number of Anonymous’ demands.
Also in the wake of Swartz’s suicide, the House Oversight Committee, co-chaired by Representatives Darrell Issa and Elijah Cummings, has opened its own inquiries into the proportionality of computer-crime prosecutions, and in an unprecedented development last week, received input from a representative of Anonymous. Gregg Housh has been associated with Anonymous for so long that he can recount the conversation that led to the adoption of its emblematic Guy Fawkes mask. By observing and never participating in its operations, he has protected himself from prosecution to serve as an unofficial public spokesperson for the group. On separate conference calls with Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday and Thursday, Housh highlighted a number of ongoing computer crime prosecutions, which he feels stemmed from innocuous transgressions. “Both sides were very receptive,” he told me. “I told them not only do you need to change these laws, and you need to change them quickly, you need to make sure the Justice Department is paying attention to all these other cases that may end as badly as Aaron’s did.”
It’s a dizzying set of events. Anonymous besieges the DOJ on behalf of an issue that Congress had independently taken up, and then Congress gets direct and indirect feedback from Anonymous. So is Anonymous now a legitimate political player? And if so, is it receptive to, or even compatible with, the good old-fashioned pragmatism of representative democracy?
Anonymous is a nebulous network. It has no hierarchy, no leadership, and no official membership. Participants flux in and out of constantly changing Internet Relay Chats (IRCs), where operations are proposed, deliberated, and sometimes launched. It’s much more of a tool for emergent phenomena than any kind of strict political organization. Emergence, in its techno-jargon use, describes how complex systems arise from a great number of individual components. Thunderstorms are a good illustration, where air and water particles randomly coalesce into a much more powerful force. To understand what that means on a personal level for members of Anonymous, it’s potentially helpful to imagine the transcendent non-digital collective moments of your life (assuming you still have those).
It might be a rock concert or a three-day sit in for animal rights—whatever it is, part of the appeal is surrendering the ego, the most outward part of your identity, the persistent burden of being at the center of all things. For an epic guitar solo or in a raucous call-and-response, the sphere extends, and you feel the power of something greater than yourself. It’s the same for participants of Anonymous operations, at least in their most glorified self-conception. For a time, that electrifying sense of disarmament came from getting a stranger to look at a Rick Astley video, or a crocheted mitten for a penis. Then it meant taking down MasterCard and helping depose a Tunisian dictator.
The challenge of trying to interpret its political fortunes? Emergent systems are notoriously difficult to pin down and predict. Anonymous does have two central political principles: communication on the Internet should be unrestricted, and users should be free to anonymously interact on an unrestricted Internet. Beyond that, its structure is social plasma, a fourth state of matter, “a non-negligible number of charge carriers that respond strongly to electromagnetic fields.” Even Housh admits that the group’s inherent nature, which precedes any cohesive long-term political program, can be maddening; its sectors are liable to do some really pride-swelling things, like reestablishing Internet connectivity in Tahrir Square, and some really shameful things, like attacking the PBS website for an ungenerous Frontline episode on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
As a result, the press has found Anonymous very difficult to comprehend, largely because our job has traditionally been itemizing the political demands that motivate a group’s methods. But for Anonymous, its politics are its methods. It’s more like the nudist protests in San Francisco City Hall than the counter sit-ins of Greensboro. Anonymous is defending the online structure that lets it be Anonymous. Looking towards the horizon won’t help decipher that; for its members, Anonymous is the vanguard.
The perpetrators of the DOJ hack will presumably be hunted down. Representative Issa and his fellow Republicans will likely use computer-crime prosecutions to castigate Attorney General Eric Holder. And though the least likely outcome is probably Congress passing substantive reform, it will be interesting how members of Anonymous respond to the success or failure of having petitioned the government openly and directly.
Either way, Anonymous is probably a self-sustaining force at this point. As it’s discovered new modes of online political expression, it has also reflected a few time-tested truths. Pericles, Leon Trotsky, and the political philosopher, Michael Walzer, told us: You may not be interested in politics/the dialectic/war, but politics/the dialectic/war is interested in you. Last week on the Prospect site, Jeff Saginor and Jon Coumes thoroughly explained how a bunch of sardonic online pranksters, scoring “lulz” on the /b/ board of 4chan.org, became a wholly relevant global political phenomenon. From the worldwide street demonstration against Scientology in 2008 to enlisting as the revolution’s IT department during the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement to declaring metaphorical nuclear war on the DOJ, it has taken Anonymous just four years to pass through each stage of axiomatic political realization. It’s hard to imagine after such a rise, its participants will be easily brought down, or ignored. For you may not be interested in the Internet but the Internet is interested in you.