|Column: The duplicity of anonymous|
Wednesday, 29 June 2011 10:20
Are they a bunch of acne-faced teenagers engaging in random acts of mob violence from their mothers' basements, or the true protectors of the Internet? Or both? It's a paradox – and one that begs questions about the true nature and power of the Net.
On 10 February 2008, the Church of Scientology came under attack. Thousands of Internet users from across the globe had unanimously decided that the Church was a "money-making cult" and that it was up to them to do something about it. They donned Guy Fawkes masks (ala V for Vendetta) and gathered en mass outside Scientology churches.
According to Wikipedia, 7 000 people protested in at least 100 cities worldwide. Within 24 hours of the first protest, a search for 'Scientology' and 'protest' on Google Blog Search returned more than 4 000 results and over 2 000 pictures of the event.
What particular crime had sparked this protest? The church wanted to remove a video from YouTube. An Internet group, calling itself 'Anonymous', took exception to this. Claiming to be the defenders of Internet freedom and freedom of speech, they decided to take a stand.
A rallying cry went out: "Brothers, our time has come for us to rise, as not only heroes of the Internet, but as its guardians. Brothers, let the demons of the intarwebs [Internet] become the angels that shall vanquish the evil that dare turn its face to us. Brothers... man the harpoons!"
Three years later, they are toppling governments and upsetting the world's economy.
Anonymous has a reputation. If you happen to stumble upon any of their haunts you'd better not be at work. Their image boards, where any user can post anonymously, are cesspools of racism, sexism and pornography. They have been involved in horrific incidents of bullying and cruel pranks. They skulk behind the anonymity that the Internet provides. They are the manifestation of the darkness within us all, the epitome of the psychological phenomenon "group think".
And yet... they are also responsible for taking down white supremacist radio host Hal Turner's Web site and costing him thousands of dollars; for tracking down Internet predator, Chris Forcand, before the police even got around to investigating him; for banding together with The Pirate Bay to try ensure Iran had free and fair elections. Last year they fought against Internet censorship in Australia, against corporations suing independent developers for copyright violation and, even more famously, stood up in support of the freedom of speech and right to information presented by Wikileaks and for the human rights of suspected leaker, Bradley Manning.
This year, they played a part in the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan protests, targeting government Web sites.
And now they are in the press again - this time in conjunction with the hacker group claiming responsibility for the Sony security breech, LulzSec.
However, Anonymous has made numerous statements to the press and on Web sites such as PasteBin that they do not support the anarchic fervour of the members of LulzSec. When Anonymous targets something, it's for a reason.
As I write this, they are engaging in a wide-ranging campaign against oppressive governments called Operation Anonymous. Yesterday they dumped data from Anguillan, Brazilian, Zimbabwean and Australian government servers and there was talk of them targeting the Israeli government next. You can easily follow their progress on Twitter by running a search for the hashtag #antisec or #wordrevolution.
Today they've declared war on Orlando, Fl, targeting a different Orlando-related website every day until the city stops arresting non-profit members feeding the homeless (you can follow @OpOrlando2011 for more info on this).
So are they terrorists? Or are they activists? Or are they misguided freedom of speech evangelists with their hearts in the right place but with despicable methods? And are they using these methods because they wish to show off, or because these are the only methods that they feel will work?
The answer, I feel, is "all of the above". Anonymous is not so much an organisation as a movement. It has little to no leadership and every member operates independently for his or her own reasons. This is what makes it most powerful and at times pretty terrifying. Again the image from V for Vendetta seems fitting: many masked citizens marching on the seat of government, a few falling to the shots of frightened soldiers now and then, but the mass moving steadily onwards.
Perhaps figuring out who they are, why they do what they do and if there is any way to stop them is not as important as acknowledging that they represent a fundamental shift in the way we have to think about politics.
As The Pirate Party has argued for a shift in the way we think of copyright and ownership in the digital age, so does Anonymous put forward the idea that people now really have the power to stop the governments and corporations of the world from engaging in undesirable behaviour, that people have the power to to hold them accountable.
To steal the quote from V for Vendetta: "Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea. And ideas are bulletproof."
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