I Can Haz Internet Freedom?

AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Anonymous supporters wearing Guy Fawkes masks hold a banner as they take part in a protest outside Britain's Houses of Parliament in London, Monday, November 5, 2012. The protest was held on November 5 to coincide with the failed 1605 gunpowder plot to blow up the House of Lords. 

Two weeks ago today, a line was crossed. Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win—a twisted and distorted perversion of justice—a game where the only winning move was not to play.

That message greeted visitors to the United States Sentencing Commission website the evening of January 25. The words were part of a ten-minute video manifesto embedded on the homepage of the commission, responsible for writing the sentencing policies and guidelines for federal courts. The death of the Internet savant and information activist Aaron Swartz, who took his own life due at least in part to the outsize charges he was facing at the hands of the U.S. justice system, was still an open wound for most tech-literate net dwellers. No group took the news of Swartz’s passing more personally than Anonymous. The hactivist collective swore vengeance, citing the "highly disproportionate sentencing" of Swartz and others like him, and commenced the darkly named Operation Last Resort, hijacking numerous Department of Justice websites and sending “nuclear warheads” packed with stolen DOJ records hurtling across the Internet.

By Saturday night, the government reclaimed the USSC.gov domain, only to have another website come under siege hours later. This time, it was the U.S. Probation Office for the State of Michigan, and if you tapped out a certain combination on your keyboard, you got the vintage arcade game Asteroids, ready to play. Twice in one day, Anonymous had hacked government websites of the most technologically sophisticated nation on earth. Its first strike was a passionate, political call to arms—its second, shenanigans. This seeming contradiction, between crusading morality and adolescent hijinks, is at the heart of Anonymous. 

What exactly is Anonymous?

The group’s name can be traced back to a website, 4chan. If you’re not familiar, 4chan was and is the Mos Eisley of the Internet, a lawless message board operating on the fringes of Internet society with a dedicated and passionate following. Officially billed as an “image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images,” nearly every enduring meme of the post-millennial web found its roots in 4chan, from LOLCats to RickRolling. Anonymous emerged from deep within the site, inside a particular subheading known as “/b/.”

Notorious even among 4chan’s milieu, /b/ truly is the id of the Internet, a wild west of pornography, cat pictures, and staggering amounts of scatological humor. There, like all 4chan message boards, posting without an identity gets you labeled “Anonymous.” Those early nameless users were the primordial ooze the movement crawled out of, anonymity serving to embolden and unite. During this formative period, the citizens of /b/ set about to collectively prank the Internet. Their capers, from organizing online flash mobs, to persecuting bullies, to being bullies themselves, broke ground for the sort of hive-mind hyper-democracy that followed.

It went like this: A user would suggest a worthy or amusing target on the message board, and it would either be echoed by the ever-growing voices of the site’s chorus, like a game of cyber-telephone, or otherwise ignored into irrelevance. Early members picked their targets purely for “the lulz”—something like “laughs,” but closer to schadenfreude. Calling Anonymous a group was to miss the point; it was defined by its participation at any given moment, and like any crowd, the range of interests varied wildly. An early refrain from those days was “none of us are as cruel as all of us,” and one member likened the whole enterprise to being part of an epic inside joke. They hijacked the forum of the Epilepsy Foundation and replaced its content with brightly flashing gifs. All for the lulz.

All that DoJ stuff doesn’t sound very funny. Are you sure we’re talking about the same Anonymous?

In 2008, something changed. An unauthorized “orientation” video for the Church of Scientology featuring Tom Cruise was publicly leaked to Youtube. The video was bizarre enough to be Kubrickian parody—with the theme to Mission: Impossible looping endlessly in the background, Cruise, fresh from jumping on Oprah’s couch, made his case: “Being a Scientologist, you look at someone and you know absolutely that you can help them.” The video was first met with disbelief, then bemusement, then derision. Scientology was accused of brainwashing its followers, and millions of views later, the Church’s army of litigants marched off to harass and pressure websites into removing the content—an effort that was largely successful. Gawker became embroiled in a public struggle to keep the video alive, and amidst the chaos, Anonymous struck.

The campaign kicked off with a threatening video titled “Message to Scientology,” and quickly escalated to prank phone calls, faxing black pages to Scientology offices en masse, and the infamous Distributed Denial of Service attack (DDoS). DDoS harnesses the might of thousands of would-be activists by pointing them all at a website at the exact same moment, overloading servers and rendering the site temporarily inoperable. Because DDoS attacks can be carried out by anyone—all that’s required is a click of the mouse—and because the flood of users creates its own anonymity, the method has become an Anonymous calling card. The fight eventually jumped offline, with thousands picketing Scientology centers in Guy Fawkes masks, keeping their anonymity intact à la V for Vendetta. “For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind—and for our own enjoyment,” droned the computerized voice from the Anonymous video, “we shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form.”

It’s impossible to say for certain why Anonymous crossed the threshold from merry pranksters to activists, but the movement could not have found a better target for its first political lambasting than Scientology. The organization’s zealous litigating had made critical investigation difficult for a news media uneager to risk a court battle with the church’s stacked coffers. Scientology represented what Anonymous despised: a group hiding behind the First Amendment to protect its questionable religious status, simultaneously trampling it to protect its reputation. The hypocrisy was too ripe—the lulz too great—to ignore.

So how do these crazy operations get planned? Sounds hard.

4chan will always play host to some part of Anonymous, but the gathering has long-since left its humble first home, and now operates across various websites and services. The meat of Anonymous activity—targeting and planning—happens over Internet Relay Chat. The details of IRC aren’t important except that it’s simple, lacks unique names, and allows for huge numbers of simultaneous users in the same conversation. While it’s opaque to the majority of the Internet public, it provides a relatively open platform for discussion.

Anonymous is collaborative, with dozens or even hundreds or thousands of users on IRC, and while individual ‘ops’ might have prominent organizers, the gathering itself is leaderless. Issues are proposed, voted on, and developed into targets by the crowd. Those who seek a leadership mantle are quickly shamed, banned from IRC, and called things we wouldn’t print. Users drop in and out, spectating, debating, organizing, and volunteering, from penning PR stunts to hacking the most secure servers of the U.S. government.

Hold up. There are thousand and thousands of people who know how to hack super-secure websites? Wait just a sec while I go cancel all my credit cards…

Not all ‘anons’ are capable of that sort of operation—only a handful of élites can muster the serious hacking, which brings us to the difference between the hackers and the geeks. Hackers are the heavy-lifters, the big guns, The Girl(s) with the Dragon Tattoo. Geeks are the rank-and-file—savvy, but far from experts. When the hackers write a tool to DDoS or deface a website, the geeks are the ones who put it to use.

So … what are they? Hackers? Criminals? Activists? Terrorists?

The U.S. government and the government of the U.K., along with almost every corporation and governing body ever targeted by Anonymous, have unsurprisingly treated the banner and its users as a criminal, terrorist group. Our government, as well as law enforcement across the pond, has charged dozens of anons, threatening decade-long prison terms—or worse.

Anonymous is neither a terrorist organization nor a criminal gang. Yes, its users have transgressed the law, but mostly in the interest of a political or cultural message, and rarely for personal gain. If the collective has any overarching goals, they are to safeguard the freedom of information, to bring low the haughty, and to amuse itself.

From Operation Titstorm’s defense of uncensored porn in Australia, to the Hal Turner Raids’ takedown of a proud white nationalist, virtually everything Anonymous has done to date can be traced to those three guiding lights. Anonymous’s support for Wikileaks wasn’t lent for the sheer joy of spreading state secrets—as the authorities have intimated—but in the interest of spreading all information, all the time, and especially when exposing perceived injustice. The gathering’s biggest operations have been in support of the Arab Spring—users were "on the ground" early, getting the word out about Tunisia and arming residents there and in Egypt with the tools to circumvent government restrictions on communication and the Internet. Anonymous helped ferry stories and videos out of the region, and even mass-faxed relevant Wikileaks documents to machines all over Egypt, all the while hacking, defacing, and disabling government websites. And of course there is the movement’s enduring role in the Occupy protests—Anonymous has been pivotal less in organizing than in getting the word out to its sympathetic and technologically savvy participants.

Anonymous tactics like DDoS have been met with harsh responses and harsher prison sentences by those governments tasked with policing our cyber frontiers, but anons—and an ever-increasing proportion of Internet users—see these acts more as 21st century sit-ins. Anonymous may shut down a business with a mass influx of "customers," but without any permanent damage done, how is that any different from the Greensboro lunch counter?

Where are they going with this? Is it still just for the lulz?

There will always be potential for opportunists to co-opt and exploit an amorphous idea. All that’s required is someone to fly the flag, as was the case in the recent proclamation of war against Facebook, which was quickly disavowed by “official” Anonymous channels, if that makes any sense. Last year, when it was discovered that a former high-ranking member had turned FBI-informant, fingering many other top hackers, it was generally assumed the operation had been gutted, the party over. Then came the recent hacking of the DOJ, and it’s clear that Anonymous is still alive and well.

The reality is that we live in a world of ever-increasing cyber threats. Stuxnet and Flame, the astonishingly complex computer viruses that wreaked havoc on Iranian nuclear centrifuges, were the work of U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies. It is estimated that China’s industrial espionage costs U.S. businesses a trillion dollars a year, and it doesn’t stop there: The New York Times reported that over a four-month period, its newsroom computers were infiltrated dozens of times by hackers, while reporters worked on an investigation into the business dealings of China’s prime minister. Russian mobs steal thousands of credit card numbers a day. Anonymous supported Wikileaks, which may have put U.S. agents and service members at risk, but in doing so it exposed the injustices of wars that the mainstream media was remiss in covering, and arguably had a hand in bringing those wars to an end.

Anonymous’ threat to detonate the “nuclear warheads” stolen from DOJ servers is a serious one, both for the government and for its own future legitimacy. The warheads would purportedly expose sensitive information about those unconnected with the prosecution of Aaron Swartz. As Anonymous stated on the DOJ’s hacked website, “We have not taken this action lightly, nor without consideration of the possible consequences. Should we be forced to reveal the trigger-key to this warhead, we understand that there will be collateral damage. We appreciate that many who work within the justice system believe in those principles that it has lost, corrupted, or abandoned, that they do not bear the full responsibility for the damages caused by their occupation. It is our hope that this warhead need never be detonated.”

Such an extreme act risks alienating those sympathetic to the cause, never mind the guarantee of government retaliation. But our legal system is broken when it comes to cases like Swartz’s, and action must be taken to distinguish—both morally and legally—the types of cybercrime that are only bound to increase as we become ever more dependent on an economy of information. The morality of Anonymous may be ambiguous, its structure may lend itself to manipulation and abuse, and its members may not always agree to do the right thing, but hacktivism has been an effective tool in battling the Internet’s injustices. Anonymous represents the future of activism—online and off.

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