Don’t Poke the Bear: Scrimmaging with Anonymous
Hacktivism is in the news, if not exactly grabbing headlines. When major service providers pulled the plug on WikiLeaks, temporarily cutting off access to the site via its domain name, “WikiLeaks.org” in hopes of hobbling financial support the venture, the boys at anonymous sprung into action, unleashing their anarchic, anti-corporate rage in the form of a series of attacks on a host of websites across the globe.
What does this mean, actually? Picture a restaurant swamped at lunch; the kitchen can’t get the food out quickly enough; people are lined up out the door; the orders keep coming in, via phone, fax, shouting waitresses; suddenly, gridlock. What anonymous organized was a way to get orders for service to arrive in sufficient numbers at the targeted websites to cause them to crash.
Starting on December 7, the attacks in support of WikiLeaks began: the corporate sites for Visa and Mastercard were brought down for awhile; PayPal’s blog went on the fritz and the website’s performance was slowed. Operation Payback was in full effect, with up to the minute reports from the front, tweeted to Twitter:
If the government was going to try to block access to WikiLeaks, then anonymous was going to fight back in the name of freedom.
Picturing this as a battle with two opposed sides converts this unprecedented global development into a conflict that is reassuringly familiar: the evil corporations and the fist-shaking revolutionaries.
That’s a good story, one that always finds an audience: last year, for example, crowds flocked to see Avatar, where humans are hard at work stripping Alpha Centuri’s moon, Pandora, of the precious mineral “unobtanium” (really?). Unsurprisingly, the indigenous humanoids have an enclave, Hometree, atop a rich vein of unobtanium (really, alas). The heartless mining concern attacks Hometree and it looks bad for awhile, but then, after a lot of fighting and special effects involving flying humanoids and ten-foot tall blue Amazons/centerfolds, it all gets sorted out somehow, with the heartless forces getting a good old-fashioned ass-kicking and the weird proto-human, semi-cyborgian creatures swept to victory by nature or something.
OK, sure, it’s a little fuzzy at the edges, but consider this: what I just tried to describe is now the highest grossing film in history (in the U.S. and Canada), the biggest selling Blu-ray of all time, and the first film ever to gross $2B.
Grrrrrrrrr and snarllllllllll.
anonymous coming together to support Assange and WikiLeaks makes for an equally good story. But, the facts are a little more involved and only partly because anonymous is, well, anonymous. Operation Payback actually started early in September and its original list of targets was comprised only of corporate entities interested, first and foremost, in protecting the kind of copyrighted material–namely movies and music–that many web residents like to share freely.
The protectors of copyright–and all that is good and sacred, it must be remembered–have been largely thwarted in their efforts to put an end to all of this illegal file-sharing, pretty much for the same reason the U.S. government hasn’t been able to erase WikiLeaks from the web: shutdown Napster, one of the earliest file-sharing sites, and Limewire emerges to fill the void; shutdown Limewire and another version of the hydra-headed beast springs to life. Shutdown the domain name “WikiLeaks.org” and the site remains accessible to anyone who types in its IP address: 188.8.131.52.
So, what do you do if you’re the Motion Picture Association of America or any of the other entities representing recording artists? You try adding those really compelling Public Service Announcements to the front end of DVDs, where “piracy” is directly linked to the support of terrorism and, apparently, going straight to Hell (there’s always a lot of fire in these little promos). Like all PSAs, though, these have no noticeable effect on the target population, which leads to step two: fight fire with fire!
ACS:Law, a company that pursues suspected copyright infringers, did what any red-blooded protector of the law would do when faced with such an intolerable display of lawlessness: they outsourced a retaliatory assault to a foreign corporation, Aiplex Software, since launching their own cyber-attack would have been illegal. Aiplex, in turn, targeted Pirate Bay, a site that promotes file-sharing and serves as a meeting place for the kind of users likely to be sympathetic with anonymous.
It turns out that this strategy of outsourcing your wars doesn’t work any better in the cyber world than it does in the real world.
When the team at Aiplex brought Pirate Bay down in a cyber attack, Operation Payback was born. In the immortal words of anonymous:
“We must show these faggots what we think of their bullshit.”
As someone who knows virtually nothing about programming, I’m amazed at the simplicity of this particular action. The code is provided for anyone who wishes to participate and instructions are provided as to where to place the code and when the launch it.
These facts about “Operation Payback” have led Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, to argue that it is a mistake to call this “hacking,” which suggests breaking into a system. Stallman believes a more appropriate term for what anonymous is doing in this instance is “the internet equivalent of a mass demonstration.” And what is being protested is the absence of rights accorded those who use the web. In the physical world, you buy a book and you can do with it as you please; in the network-centric world, you buy an e-book and it comes with, in Stalliman’s evocative image, “digital handcuffs to stop you from giving, lending, or selling [it], as well as licenses forbidding that.”
Two Highlights from Operation Payback.
The original attack on ACS:Law website is met with scorn by Andrew Crossley, the sole lawyer connected with the company, who is quoted in the press as saying:
Big Whoop, [the website] was only down for a few hours. I have far more concern over the fact of my train turning up 10 minutes late of having to queue for a coffee than them wasting my time with this sort of rubbish.
That public assessment turned out not to be such a good idea.
Call to Arms against ACS Law Solicitors as part of Operation Payback
Crossley’s quote was posted to 4chan, an image-sharing site where anonymous is believed to hang out, and the professionals got to work, creating what The Register deems “one of the worst-ever data leaks.” In this instance, when the ACS:Law website was brought back online, information on thousands of users thought to be involved in sharing pornography and video games was mistakenly made available to those who knew how to find it. anonymous knows such things, grabbed the data, and then made it freely available to users online at–where else?–free file-sharing websites.
According to a story published in The Register on September 28th, Crossley faces a fine of over $1M for violating the Data Protection Act.
Score 1 for anonymous.
November 26th, 2010. The Pirate Bay co-founders lose their appeal in Swedish court on charges of encouraging illegal file sharing and have their fine increased from $2M to $6.5M. Among the 17 different music and media companies they are ordered to compensate is 20th Century Fox, makers of Avatar. The co-founders, who were sentenced from four to ten months in prison, vowed via Twitter to appeal their convictions to the European Supreme Court.
Score 1 for the Corporations.
The obvious question to ask is this: who is anonymous?
For reasons I’ll explain shortly, I don’t think this is the right question to be asking at this point–the question itself being emblematic of the print-centric paradigm. But, this is the question on the minds of cyber police the world over, as they seek to arrest those responsible for attacking Mastercard, Visa, PayPal, etc. (but not those responsible for attacking the sites affiliated with WikiLeaks).
On December 9th, it was announced that a 16 year-old boy in The Netherlands had been arrested in connection with Operation Payback. The best source for news on the arrest comes, not surprisingly, from a site dedicated to providing news to filesharers, TorrentFreak. TorrentFreak identifies the young man as Jeroenz0r and is able to confirm, via an anonymous source, that Jeroenz0r had been unavailable online for the past 24 hours after having been heavily involved in the pro-piracy effort. The source went on to say:
“Some of his friends tried calling him yesterday but the phone lead to voicemail. When calling his home number, his dad refused to comment on the situation. Furthermore, his local town newspaper also reported that a local 16 year old boy was arrested.”
Who is anonymous? He’s a sixteen-year old boy living with his parents, upstairs in his room, playing on his computer.
He is legion.
Because none of us *is* as cruel as all of us.
The problems with asking “who is anonymous” are obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to the War on Terror over the past fifteen years: when you think the problem is a person and you drag him out of his spider hole and hang him for all the world to see, the person’s gone, but the problem is even worse than it was before.
You can shut down Pirate Bay and you can arrest little Jan in The Netherlands, but the problem remains.
Under the network-centric paradigm, the more useful question to ask is this: How is anonymous?
What political theory organizes anonymous? What is its call to arms?
No offense is intended by saying that a promising place to start looking for an answer to this question is with what is known to insiders as a graphic novel but looks to people of a certain age more like a fat comic book: V is for Vendetta.
Published in installments beginning in 1982; as a single volume in 1988.
In Alan Moore’s dystopic future, the UK is ruled by fascists and its citizens are powerless drones. V, a former prisoner of the state, commits to liberating the people by bringing down the state through a series of increasingly extraordinary, theatrical acts of revolt, all instigated by the character you see above–black cape, top hat, Guy Fawkes mask.
V’s got it all going on: knows his way around a knife, a gun, your explosive devices, technology, the streets of London, even the ladies. The mask is an empty symbol: it protects his anonymity; it cloaks his actions with a vague political valence through association with Fawkes; and through the association with Fawkes, it points in the direction of one of V’s aims, which is to destroy Parliament.
The movie version (domestic gross, $71M), which came out from Warner Brothers in 2006, shifts things around so that the spectacular explosion of Parliament can serve as the story’s finale, with Tchaikovsky wailing away in the background:
The felt sense of powerlessness can lead to despair, to cynicism, to indifference, to rage. In the pyramid of power that is the default in the 1.0 world, powerlessness is the rule of the day for everyone on the lower floors, grinding away in their windowless cubicles or, in the case of 16 year-olds, in the holding pens of mass education.
Web 2.0, the network-centric, read-write world, provides the felt sense of relative autonomy. Instant communication. Global networking. Anonymity. Micro-group think.
The anonymity is not absolute, however, as Jeroenz0r has discovered. And as Dimitriy Guzner discovered last year, when he was sentenced to a year in federal prison and fined $37,500 for disrupting access to the Church of Scientology’s website. Claiming affiliation with anonymous, Guzner, now 19 years old, was attacking the Church for its efforts to suppress access to an internal video featuring Tom Cruise extolling the virtues of Scientology.
All this energy and intelligence marshaled to protest censorship and to protect the free sharing of pirated movies, music, and images. Who is anonymous? They are our students.
This is part of an ongoing meditation on the End of Privacy. While it can be read on its own, you might enjoy starting at the beginning, where I lay out the project of thinking about privacy in relation to examining information about Tyler Clementi that is openly available on the Web. This mediation starts here: The End of Privacy: A Case Study (Tyler Clementi and WikiLeaks). A summary of all sections of the meditation may be found here: Annotated Table of Contents for The End of Privacy: A Case Study.
The TorrentFreak article may be found here.
The Register article may be found here.
Richard Stallman’s op-ed may be found at: The Anonymous Wikeleaks Protests are a Mass Demonstration Against Control.