Thursday, 9 December 2010

Anonymous, Wikileaks and the age of online activism

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly):

Anonymous activists turn out to protest against
Scientology in London in 2008
It's interesting to see that a group of hackers calling themselves "Anonymous" have launched attacks on Visa and Mastercard, in what they say is an act of revenge for the companies' refusal to take payments on behalf of the controversial Wikileaks site. The hackers, as part of what they are calling "Operation Payback", launched DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks against the sites and succeeded in disrupting some of their online services, although a statement from Mastercard said "There is no impact on our cardholders' ability to use their cards for secure transactions globally." Anonymous have threatened to target other companies that have withheld their services from Wikileaks – the payment service Paypal stopped transactions for the site last week and has experienced DDoS attacks – and have suggested they might attack Twitter, alleging that it has censored the hashtag #WikiLeaks, although this has been denied by the social networking site. Twitter has, however, suspended one of the accounts used by Operation Payback, which the BBC suggested this may be a related to a message that linked to credit card details.

While Anonymous has been involved in numerous online activities since it emerged in 2006-7 – ranging from pranks such as "YouTube Porn Day" (basically uploading porn to YouTube) to support for the Iranian election protests in 2009 – it is best known for its campaign against the Church of Scientology, which began in 2008. Beginning with DDoS attacks on Scientology websites, the campaign expanding from an internet hacking operation to physical protests outside Scientology centres around the world, with hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of masked protesters turning out at the peak of the campaign.

The whole point of Anonymous is that it is ultimately a label for a leaderless, loosely-coordinated collection of activists – it doesn't exist as an organisation, there is no membership in the traditional sense and there are no clearly-defined aims. (Today's Daily Mail calls Anonymous "a shadowy international group", which displays a real lack of understanding.) Those involved can range from pranksters and hackers in it for the sport, to highly-principled activists. Anyone can get involved and say that they are doing what they are doing on behalf of "Anonymous".

But if there is one unifying principle for those calling themselves Anonymous, it is internet freedom. Reporting on a London protest against Scientology in 2008, I found a strange mixture of principle and pranks among those in attendance, but the one idea that seemed to bind them together was free speech. The initial DDoS attacks on Scientology websites had begun as a result of the Church's removal of leaked videos from YouTube (you may recall the now-infamous Tom Cruise video), and anger over internet censorship had spread to those protesting on the streets, with one masked activist telling me:
“What really got me was when the cult of Scientology tried to censor what people were putting on YouTube. Freedom of speech is the thing that makes the internet what it is, so that pissed me off enough to do a bit of research and realise that I can help destroy an evil cult and have some fun at the same time.”
It is here that we can begin to trace the connection with Wikileaks, as some of the now-notorious site's early activity involved the leaking of documents considered highly sensitive by the secretive Church of Scientology, including details of the high-level training courses that cost members hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Wikileaks and Anonymous, then, are natural allies. Indeed, you could perhaps go so far as to say they are part of the same movement (it would be interesting to know how far there is a crossover between those involved). While Wikileaks has a figurehead in the form of Julian Assange, as he pointed out in his Q and A with Guardian readers last week, the site is founded on the principle of anonymity:
"This is an interesting question. I originally tried hard for the organisation to have no face, because I wanted egos to play no part in our activities. This followed the tradition of the French anonymous pure mathematians, who wrote under the collective allonym, "The Bourbaki". However this quickly led to tremendous distracting curiosity about who and random individuals claiming to represent us. In the end, someone must be responsible to the public and only a leadership that is willing to be publicly courageous can genuinely suggest that sources take risks for the greater good. In that process, I have become the lightening rod. I get undue attacks on every aspect of my life, but then I also get undue credit as some kind of balancing force."
As Scientology has found in its battle with Anonymous, it is extremely difficult to tackle a faceless, web-based adversary – the time-honoured tactic of suing critics was of no use without names or faces to attribute to those new adversaries. Governments are now experiencing the same problems with Wikileaks – US public figures such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, who have focussed on the perceived need to silence Assange, show a profound misunderstanding of the new online activism. Whatever happens to Assange as a result of his recent arrest, it is unlikely to affect the flow of documents from Wikileaks, because it does not exist in the same form as the traditional state or organisational actors that pervade the worldview of someone like Sarah Palin.

Whatever your view of the "Cablegate" saga and the ethics of Wikileaks, it is clear that this form of activism is here to stay. While "Anonymous" can be connected to concrete campaigns such as the Scientology protests, or the DDoS attacks on Mastercard and Visa, to view it as a kind of "organisation" or "movement" in the traditional sense misses the point entirely. It is perhaps best understood as an "idea" – that the internet, as a domain of free-flowing, uncensored information (which is to be protected at all costs) can be used by disparate, at best loosely connected, individuals to undermine powerful state and corporate actors behind an unprecedented cloak of anonymity. It is a powerful idea (one that Wikileaks is a part of), and it remains to be seen how the states and organisations of the old world will be able to adapt to it.
blog comments powered by Disqus