Anonymous

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Description

1.

This appeared on the Global Guerillas blog:

"I am a member of Anonymous and a long-time reader of this blog. There are a couple of additional points I'd like to add to John's article.

Firstly, Anonymous is an example of viral organisation - there is no centralised leadership, and although there are nodes of organisation, these are dynamic - if one goes down or is taken down, others compensate with little damage done to the utility of the network as a whole. Organisation and decisions are made through what I would term "viral consensus" - the facts, questions and opinions are disseminated throughout the network by it's users, the most successful or popular of these possible courses of action are therefore repeated more often and gain traction - mutations to the idea occur and those that are popular flourish. As such, there are no leaders to attack - whilst there may be some individuals who are more visible (such as Mark Bunker) they are not essential-, no easily-accisble points of failure. Indeed, the only thing that would severely disrupt the insurgency as a whole is internal factional problems - which are near-impossible for an outsider to predict or cause due to the shibboleths John mentions; or a total disruption of the internet as a whole.

Secondly, the initial campaign of DDOS and internet insurgency can be seen as an example of the internet as an enabling force - most members of anonymous are not hackers or computer security experts, but the information available on how to conduct operations such as DDOS attacks etc is readily available on the internet, and can be spread concisely and practically throughout the group itself through other networking tools (IRC, message boards, forums, p2p). However, the interesting thing in particular about the methodology of anonymous is that it is intensely adaptable - when the opinions of Mark Bunker that the illegal aspects of anonymous actions (DDOS etc) were tactically efficient but strategically detrimental entered the viral consciousness, the methodology drastically changed - to real life protests organised over a number of countries, and to information dissemination tactics aimed at the public." (http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2008/03/journal-anonymo.html)


2.

"But who, or what, is – or are – Anonymous?

A 22-year-old spokesman, who wished to be known only as "Coldblood", told the Guardian that the group – which is about a thousand strong – is "quite a loose band of people who share the same kind of ideals" and wish to be a force for "chaotic good".

There is no real command structure in the group, the London-based spokesman said, while most of its members are teenagers who are "trying to make an impact on what happens with the limited knowledge they have". But others are parents, IT professionals and people who happen to have time – and resources – on their hands.

The group has gained notoriety for its attacks on copyright-enforcement agencies and organisations such as the Church of Scientology.

Anonymous was born out of the influential internet messageboard 4chan, a forum popular with hackers and gamers, in 2003. The group's name is a tribute to 4chan's early days, when any posting to its forums where no name was given was ascribed to "Anonymous". But the ephemeral group, which picks up causes "whenever it feels like it", has now "gone beyond 4Chan into something bigger", its spokesman said.

The membership of Anonymous is impossible to pin down; it has been described as being like a flock of birds – the only way you can identify members is by what they're doing together. Essentially, once enough people on the 4chan message boards decide that an issue is worth pursuing in large enough numbers, it becomes an "Anonymous" cause.

The group counts the current campaign in support of WikiLeaks as "probably one of [its] most high profile yet". The group gained notoriety more recently for a number of sustained assaults against the sites of US music industry body RIAA, Kiss musician Gene Simmons, and solicitors' firms involved in lawsuits against people suspected of illegal filesharing. In early 2008, Anonymous launched a campaign against the Church of Scientology, bringing down related websites and promising to "expel" the religion from the internet.

"We're against corporations and government interfering on the internet," Coldblood added. "We believe it should be open and free for everyone. Governments shouldn't try to censor because they don't agree with it.

"Anonymous is supporting WikiLeaks not because we agree or disagree with the data that is being sent out, but we disagree with any from of censorship on the internet. If we let WikiLeaks fall without a fight then governments will think they can just take down any sites they wish or disagree with."

The spokesman said Anonymous plans to "move away" from DDoS attacks and instead focus on "methods to support" WikiLeaks, such as mirroring the site. "There's no doubt in [Anonymous members'] mind that they are breaking [the] law," he said of the latest attacks. "But they feel that there's safety in numbers." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/dec/08/anonymous-4chan-wikileaks-mastercard-paypal)


Governance

1. Excerpted from a very interesting analysis of Gabriella Coleman:

“Who participates in Anonymous? What connects the different faces? Where and how does authority lie, pool, and disperse?

Technically, Anonymous is open to all and erects no formal barriers to participation. However there are forms of tacit and explicit knowledge, skills, and sympathies that lead some people and not others to politically engage in this domain. In contrast to most organizations, including Wikileaks, it is easier to contribute to Anonymous as it offers numerous micro-protest opportunities coordinated at the drop of a hat, among other possibilities for participation.

To grasp some of the power dynamics at play in Anonymous, it is imperative to address the technical architecture where many spend a significant time chatting and coordinating action: Internet Relay Chat. And it is worth emphasizing that there are currently two distinct and unconnected IRC networks where participants coordinate different efforts: Anonet and Anonops. Contrary to a number of media reports, these are open to the public. However a good deal of the public has no idea how to find or use Internet Relay Chat, although it is not technically difficult to use.

Within each IRC network there are also scores of channels, although there is usually only a dozen or so that are well populated at a given time. There are some channels devoted to social topics and lighthearted and humorous (ie: lulzy) banter, as many participants still value the lulz. The lulz provides “a release valve,” as one participant explained, a valve that makes the hard and sometimes depressing work of political engagement more bearable. Other channels exist to address technical issues, and of course, there are also multiple channels where the many political operations are coordinated; some participants have a pivotal role to play in many of them, others are only involved in a few channels.

On IRC there is a class of participants who hold more authority, those vested with infrastructural power: the IRC operators (“ops” are common to all IRC networks not only those of Anonymous). Tasked with maintaining order, they have the power to kick and ban individuals from the IRC network, which they might do for various reasons, including violating network and cultural norms, such as constantly connecting and disconnecting or in the case of Anonops, targeting the media or promoting violence. There are dozens of ops on each independent irc network. To be an op does not require that one be highly technically skilled. Although their opinions carry more weight during the many debates that unfold on these networks, they do not determine the course of every action or operation within Anonymous. Some are there simply to provide infrastructural support, others also engage in many of the political operations.

Authority and order also come in the form of policy, ethical sensibilities, and norms, all of which develop over time and often continuously formed and reformed in reaction to historical events. Participants across both networks are oriented towards issues of censorship, information freedom, and as their name so obviously signals, they tend to be overwhelmingly committed to the long-standing liberal principle that anonymous speech is necessary for a healthy democratic society. In the case of Anonops there is now an established policy to refrain from attacking the news outlets, even in nation-states where the media is seen to be a corrupt arm of state power, as in Iran. This provision is not universally accepted, and there have been periods when some participants violated this norm, leading to what is common to any political protest movement: debate and discord.

Finally, to understand the dynamics of power and authority in Anonymous one must confront what is one of the most interesting, prevalent, and socially-vibrant norms within Anonymous: its anti-leader and anti-celebrity ethic. This ethic that modulates, even if it does not fully eliminate, the concentration of power. Anonymous provides what Mike Wesch had described as “a scathing critique of the postmodern cult of celebrity, individualism, and identity while serving itself as the inverted alternative.” It is key to note that participants do not only wax philosophical about this commitment; they enact it. Participants remind each other with remarkable frequency that one should not behave like a leader, nor seek personal attention in the media, calling the practice “name fagging” or “leaderfagging.”” If you do ‘leaderfag’, you most certainly will receive a private or public drubbing, and if you have called a lot of attention to yourself, then with a mere keystroke, you might be instantly banished from IRC.

I was recently witness to just this very act after a participant had been too public about himself to a reporter, an anon who had not even built social capital by putting himself at risk participating in the DDoS attacks. After reading the article where he had been featured, one interlocutor condensed the collective mood in a mere sentence: “Attempting to use all the work that so many have done for your personal promotion is something i will not tolerate.” Then he was killed off— exiled from the IRC network

Does the existence of this ethic mean that power never pools, that there are no forms of authority? Or is Anonymous just living out a lie? Neither. To be sure, when it comes to certain actions, such as targeted hacking, only a small group of talented hackers can successfully pull this off; unsurprisingly, Anonymous is secretive about these types operations. This fact does not mean, as this Gawker piece argued that a small group of hackers are the leaders; they are confusing the power to hack, which is certainly powerful, with the power to lead all actions within Anonymous. As stated earlier, those who are more present on the network and have put in more work carry more authority; and even they don’t necessarily call all the shots. A more compelling rendition of these power dynamics would examine the dialectic between the creation of centralized power and its dispersal, which is common to many other geeky and hacker domains of collaboration. The uneasy relation between these two tendencies is partially resolved when anons constantly remind each other to refrain from behaving like a leader, and thus push participants to strive for consensus as the preferred mode of decision-making.” (http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/tne/pieces/anonymous-lulz-collective-action)


2. From the Economist:

" there is order, of a sort, within Anonymous. Anons, though they know each other only by their pseudonyms, develop trust over time through constant participation in the organising chats. The power of the group lies in a piece of software called a “low-orbit ion cannon”. Do not be put off by this scrap of jargon; an ion cannon is a fictional weapon used in fictional space epics. But the very real software allows someone to volunteer his own computer and network connection as part of a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, a coordinated mass of requests that can crash a web server. Traditionally, a DDoS comes from personal computers that have been illegally loaded with software and tethered to a single command server as part of a “botnet”. The low-orbit ion cannon is, essentially, a volunteer botnet that Anonymous uses to take down websites.

About ten people, called “OPs”, are able to launch an attack. If any OP abuses his power—if he fails to heed what anons call “the hive mind” in IRC conversations— the other OPs can lock him out of the chat. If any anon fails to be inspired by the target, she can remove her own computer from the volunteer botnet, reducing its effect. Anonymous is a 24-hour Athenian democracy, run by a quorum of whoever happens to be awake. It's hard even to define Anonymous as a “group”, since not all members participate in all projects. The attempt to take down Mr Lieberman's site, for example, is part of an effort called “operation payback”, a demonstration of support for Mr Assange. According to Mr Correll,

- Anonymous does not have a typical hierarchical government, but each mission does have a self-appointed dedicated organising body. This organizing body begins the process of setting up the necessary infrastructure, recruiting new members, researching/identifying vulnerable targets, media outreach, and more. However, the organizing body is free to change (and has changed) as the mission evolves day to day. I have observed at least one takeover when the greater group was not happy about what the organisers were doing. Steve (from TheTechHerald) and I had asked the Pirate Party to issue a statement asking Operation Payback to stop their attacks and resort to legal measures of protest. Many organisers agreed, but the greater bulk of the Anonymous group did not. They became extremely angry at the organisers and temporarily took control of the entire campaign, even releasing their own statement to the media.

Anons do understand their limitations. The ones I talked to know that to take down a Swedish prosecutor's website does not halt the prosecution in Sweden. They described their motivations, variously, as trying “to raise awareness”, “to show the prosecutor that we have the ability to act” and “damage and attention”. This is all that a denial-of-service attack can do: register protest. It is not cyberwar. It is a propaganda coup. And it's limited to a limited set of websites: vulnerable, but important." (http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2010/12/more_wikileaks)


3. From Jeff Jacobsen, in a study on Project Chanology:

"Decisions within Project Chanology are made by individuals planning their own personal activity, or by consensus (“hive-mind”). Anyone claiming leadership is shouted down instantly. In fact, Anonymous has memes to discourage anyone from claiming leadership. “Not your personal army” or NYPA is the phrase that comes up when someone tries to simply tell others what they should be doing. If someone strays from the agreed-upon actions, they are told to “stay on target” (a quote from a scene in the original “Star Wars” movie).


As an example, the Toronto Anons had a small argument when one of the organizers posted that he was quitting. He stated that:


- Since the very beginning of Chanology I was working to keep the Toronto Anons together and working by helping to create a group of like-minded colleagues and pseudo-friends. A group of dedicated 'core' anons and myself worked behind the scenes to clear out the /b/tards and the less dedicated lulz-seekers, to keep the dedicated majority together and to keep interest up. Starting in February I had hosted after-parties for all Toronto anons, as part of this campaign to keep Toronto working. After every monthly raid we would head to the penthouse at a nearby hotel and party all night. It was a radical idea (25 drunk anons in a room together, you get the idea) but it worked. It was my way of saying thanks for everybody that was still dedicated to the cause of removing the CoS from Canada and saving the Scientolgoists (paraphren, 2008).


In this case there was a local uproar and concern from outside Anons as well. Anons strongly discourage such “drama.”


Generally, personal arguments are relegated to the “Thunderdome” section of a web site, which is a sort of free-for-all area similar to /b/ in 4chan.org, where almost anything legal goes. Since most personal arguments are segregated in this manner as being “drama,” the rest of the board seems relatively peaceful and “on target” much more than alt.religion.scientology where long-time Scientology critics have posted for years. The Toronto thread was in the main forum area briefly but was then moved to the “Thunderdome” area.


The lack of hierachy in Anonymous means all voices and ideas get a hearing, decision-making can be done quickly, and each activist can feel they have as much contribution to planning as any other. Lack of hierarchy might mean less efficiency, but efficiency is not the goal, effectiveness is (Shirky, 2008). While a hierarchical organization relies on in-house specialists, anonymous has its entire population as a talent pool and cheap or free tools available on the Internet. Ideas can be tried and discarded with little investment wasted (Shirky).


There is an infinite variance in the degree of involvement, since there are no requirements nor scrutiny for compliance. An Anon can simply be a passive viewer of the activity, a contributor to ideas or discussion, an organizer, or an active participant in the “IRL” events. In this manner, Anons can feel comfortable being involved without the stress of obligation for any particular level of contribution. Anons can come and go as they please for any particular cause or event. This also means that it is difficult to predict numbers of participants for any particular activity, but generally there is no need for that anyway. This has caused friction, however, at certain times. At the Witchita, Kansas protest in May some of the organizers were upset because they had set up a grill and cooked hot dogs and hamburgers for many more people than actually showed up (nameless, 2008)." (http://www.lisamcpherson.org/pc.htm)

More at Anonymous and the War on Scientology


Status

Anonymous operations in 2013

Justin King:

"The #Ops, or operations, are as varied as the participants themselves. Examining some of the successes from the last year shows the reach of the collective and the varied tactics employed.

  • #OpMillionMaskMarch: An operation that culminated in the November 5th protest that occurred simultaneously in over 470 cities around the world and succeeded in shutting down sections of Washington, DC. Participants used the event to protest various national and international causes, meet other Anons face to face, and most importantly demonstrate that Anonymous is nowhere near “dismantled.”


  • #OpSyrianStrom: An intensive campaign that successfully derailed the march to a US war in Syria. Participants conducted a phone and email campaign targeting US politicians and media sources to build opposition against another war in the Middle East. They also employed twitterbombs, a method of tricking Twitter’s system into forcing a chosen topic to trend, to increase public awareness of the issue.

In the interest of full disclosure, the author was directly targeted by this campaign and was anonymously given information leading to the article found here.

  • #OpHumanAngels: A global campaign designed to simply make people feel better. Participants leave notes of encouragement, hug strangers on the street, and use chalk graffiti to instill a sense of community and hope in people.
  • #OpMaryville: Anonymous garnered national media attention and massive support for an operation demanding that public officials reopen an alleged rape case in Maryville, Missouri. Participants employed social networks to spread word of the incident to news outlets, politicians, and other activists. The Lt. Governor of the state joined in the call to reopen the case. A special prosecutor was named and the case was reopened.
  • #OpInform: An international team of bloggers, activists, and citizen journalists run multiple outlets from which they disperse information relevant to the Anonymous collective. The information reaches between four and five million people per year.

The Anonymous operations listed above represent only a fraction of those carried out in 2013, and were chosen to demonstrate the various methods used by the collective to accomplish its goals. (http://digitaljournal.com/news/world/op-ed-the-year-of-the-collective-anonymous-in-2013/article/364756)

Discussion

Analysing their politics in human rights terms

Article by Illan rua Wall [1]

In the last months, we have seen the emergence of ‘Anonymous’. In particular, in the days after the widespread attack on Wikileaks (following their publication of leaked US diplomatic memos) they emerged with a fairly credible threat to take down major global internet presences (belonging to both states and corporations). They have continued to post a variety of curious videos to YouTube that threaten corporations and regimes alike (see for general information here and here, on Operation Payback see here, on Algeria; here, and on Egypt; here). In general, these messages seem to coalesce around the demand to stop attacks on free speech particularly through the internet. This ‘movement’ is strange to the ears of those associated with human rights as it seems to mix postmodern cosmopolitan demands for human rights with a radical political philosophy of the multitude. This is an uncomfortable mix on the face of it because the radical politics of Hardt and Negri or Agamben (for instance) are inimical to traditional human rights. I want to argue that this is not such a fundamental contradiction. What Anonymous seem to see is the radical democratic potential of human rights – this would be a potential quite distinct from the conventional renderings.

The first point to note is that while Anonymous make statements and undertake actions they are not a unity. As Jean-Luc Nancy might say they are always instatu nascendi (always in the state of being born, always becoming, but never closed, finished or completed). They are a multitude in the sense that they lack a sovereign power that gathers them into a unified entity. They are certainly not an institution, or for that matter an organization in the sense of an IGO or NGO. They are not a ‘community’ in the traditional human rights language because they do not share the common bonds of place, ethnicity, or however we are defining

community – if they are a community you can be sure that it is entirely inoperative. They appear much closer to the civil disobedients of civil rights movements than the Amnesty letter writing campaigns whose action is the raising of a pen and the licking of a stamp. However, they are also distinctive from traditional human rights characters. What is distinctive seems to be the lack of a leadership responsible for tactics or strategy and the lack of founding documents that would constitute an authoritative pre-constituted guide and identity. Some from within this multitude assert ‘founding values’ but none are authorized, precisely because such an authorisation would be a nonsense.

...

A fairly traditional rendering of human rights posits a utopia where every state respects and protects its properly constituted juridical subjects (see the preambles of the UDHR or ICCPR/ICESCR). Those who subscribe to this idea of human rights imagine Anonymous’s (impossible) declarations along the lines of Thomas Clarkson, Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, albeit on a less significant scale. Anonymous say ‘We will take sides. We will support people who strive for freedom of speech, assembly and communication,’ and in this the human rights lawyer hears a human rights defender. However, Anonymous does not simply fit such a characterisation precisely because of the simple multiplicity at their heart.

...

most of the time, they do not seek to represent either themselves or others. They talk about human rights, but theirs is a much more radical action. As multitude they are not good juridical subjects dutifully applying (or helping others to apply) to a state’s tribunal to vindicate its rights. There is no half-hearted request to consider the case before a toothless international tribunal. Anonymous seem to see themselves as protector of ‘the people’ from the intensive state power of surveillance, censorship and discipline. They demand the right to speech and association of others,

they seem to want to facilitate resistant democratic action rather than patriarchically protect the possessive individual. This is direct action for human rights, certainly, but it is also anti-statist and even anti-sovereign, in the sense that it strikes against any state or corporation that it sees infringing on free speech or association. What is more, it seems to me that the human rights they claim are not the end of the story, they are a strategy. If association and speech can be facilitated, Anonymous seem to hope that people will overturn the existing political relations. This is why they attacked so spectacularly those who targeted Wikileaks. This is why they have since supported the Algerians and Egyptians. It seems to me that Anonymous understand their role as facilitating political action by generating and defending spaces of contestation and organisation.

With this, they go beyond the traditional radical political critique of human rights. Many have argued that the danger of human rights is that they evacuate extensive demands for social justice and replace them with demands for minimal reform (see for instance Brown States of Injury or my interview with her here). Take for instance the rights to food, shelter or health. These were once the very stuff of socialist utopia. In human rights, at most, they become the possibility of irregular bread or flour, the prohibition of the demolition of a slum or the freedom from toxic sludge being dumped in your back garden. While these are indeed laudable goals, the critique continues that they cannot be substituted for extensive demands for social justice. When these demands are translated into rights they are pacified by being brought within the gift of the government and judiciary. However, this is precisely what Anonymous seem to avoid. It is in their multiplicity, their inability to be represented, their refusal to just become another neatly organised NGO, and their refusal to evacuate the political through rights that makes them interesting. The rights they claim are traditional, however, through their a-legal actions they seem to generate a different sense for human rights. Theirs seems to be an interest in rights for world-creation: ‘whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse… to rebellion…’." (http://ssl.brookes.ac.uk/about/staff/prof.asp?ID=423)


Anonymous as Hacktivism 2.0

"There is, however, another, much more important Anonymous (Anonymous 2.0) in the Wikileaks story that needs to be discussed: those powerful individuals in privileged positions within the existing power structures, who now can safely subvert the very power structures that they define (and that define them). If Anonymous is to be feared, it is not because some rascals with short attention span download a crudely written software tool to attack websites, but because of those, for whom such anonymity lowers the costs of exposing and confronting power from within. Lowering the cost of safe opposition is exactly what Wikileaks is for.

Being Anonymous in the context of Wikileaks has a double function: it liberates the subject from the existing power structures, and in the same time it allows the exposure of these structures by opening up a space to confront them.

Anonymity offers the chance for the individual to – at least partially – remove herself from the pre-existing discursive determinations and power relations and consider alternatives. “If governmental rationalities operate through the nomination and specification of a positive identity through a series of constitutive exclusions, rarefactions and restrictions, then the practices of freedom are enabled by withholding the knowledge of oneself, resisting the injunction to a ‘confessional’ self-expression, declining the incitement to active participation in the governmentally sanctioned discourse. Anonymity may then serve ‘to encourage freedom by increasing the scope of actions not susceptible to official observation, records and interpretation’” (Prozorov 2007, citations ommitted). Anonymity is important because it liberates insiders.

Being Anonymous is an identity play, and as an identity play, it is a loyalty play. As an identifiable member of the society, the individual is bound by formal and informal attachments and hierarchies, the breaches of which are severely and instantly punished. Being Anonymous means that one’s identity and loyalty is up for grabs, it is fluid, it is independent, it is freed from it social base. Wikileaks, being the key anonymity-providing infostructure, supports new loyalties that are detached from the corrupted and failing national identities, the debilitating chorus of corporate anthems, historical determination and the normalizing judgment of Facebook peers. “People are asked to identify personally with organisations who can either no longer carry historical projects worthy of major sacrifices or expressly regard their employees as nothing but expendable, short−term resources. This […] creates the cognitive dissonance that justifies, perhaps even demands, the leaker to violate procedure and actively damage the organisation of which he, or she, has been at some point a well−acculturated member (this is the difference to the spy). This dissonance creates the motivational energy to move from the potential to the actual.” (Stalder 2010) When this happens, one’s ‘proper’ identity, one’s real name turns into a mere pseudonym that serves to hide one’s ‘real’ identity, one’s true loyalties." (http://www.warsystems.hu/fokuszban/wikileaks-and-freedom-autonomy-and-sovereignty-in-the-cloud/)


Dale Carrico reacts to a Radio Free Europe interview of “Oxblood”

Oxblood Ruffin:

- “Hacktivism uses technology to improve human rights. It also employs nonviolent tactics and is aligned with the original intent of the Internet, which is to keep things up and running. With regard to tactics, things like DDoS attacks, Web defacements, malware, and network breaches are off limits. These generally limit speech and are a violation of the First Amendment and contradict Articles 19 of the UNDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] and ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]. We may not like what certain people or organizations have to say but their rights are protected just as ours are. Justice [Louis] Brandeis put it neatly in Whitney v. California, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” [2]

Dale Carrico:

“Later in the interview Oxblood shakes the finger a bit, castigating that “People claiming to be hacktivists should A, actually understand what the term means, then B, be strategic.” I think what is being referred to here are those who indulge in reactionary or reckless acts and want to call it “hactivism” (something that is never NOT happening, frankly), and is more or less pulling rank as the one who coined the term and as someone whose practices over a generation have more or less defined the domain.

Of course, nobody controls the meaning of a term definitively. Meanings change as they are taken up, and it is one of the tragicomedies of the politics of language-use that words we release into the world (like all our words and deeds) take on a life of their own, have unintended consequences, require ongoing intervention and improvisation on all our parts if we would try to steer their course in any measure. That said, I do rather sympathize with Oxblood’s definition and with the concern over what happens when “hactivism” comes unmoored from an explicit ethos of facilitating global human rights culture.

I find Oxblood’s emphasis here on “keep[ing] things up and running” enormously appealing. It is interesting to notice that it is actually a rather conservative emphasis in an engineering rather than partisan political way, and just as hacking is: a way of testing the robustness of systems we count on by exposing them to real-world stresses insiders have a vested interest in insulating them from in ways that put everybody at risk. So, too, “hactivism” exposes dysfunctions in the institutions and systems through which the scene of legible consent is administered, ensuring our consent is informed rather than misinformed, non-duressed by insecurity and by threats of violence, exploitation, inequity, harm. This sort of engineering “conservatism” — rather like the commons conservationism with which it is linked both historically and etymologically — can yield revolutionary democratic politics in an era in which the right is hell bent not on conserving but dismantling civilizational systems of information, mediation, and support and looting commons for short-term parochial gain.

Although the repudiation of DDoS tactics seems pretty absolute, this position becomes much more nuanced as the interview continues on.

Oxblood writes: “If the objective [of hactivism] is winning hearts and minds, then social media is the way to go. At least within the liberal democracies. But when we’re talking about dictatorships, then teaching activists to use anonymizing and privacy-enhancing technologies is the cornerstone. It’s difficult to organize if you’re being anticipated and arrested before you can put any plans into action.” This distinction provides the larger context in which to understand the strategic exception Oxblood carves out a few sentences earlier: My understanding is that Anonymous Iran (which should be viewed as an autonomous operations group) is planning to DDoS a website collecting data on Iranian activists…. Elections [in Iran] are a sham; basic human rights are vigorously denied; the judiciary is an extension of a corrupt government. DDoSing the media — which are essentially government propaganda organs — is not a violation of speech when it protects human rights and saves lives. This would be an exception to established hacktivist tactics but a justifiable one.”

There are really useful and substantive distinctions being elaborated here for hactivism as a democratizing practice. More troubling to me, however, is the distinction Oxblood seems to want to leverage near the end of the interview: “I’ve heard DDoSing referred to as the digital equivalent of a lunch counter sit-in, and quite frankly I find that offensive. It’s like a cat burglar comparing himself to Rosa Parks. Implicit in the notion of civil disobedience is a willful violation of the law; deliberate arrest; and having one’s day in court. There is none of that in DDoSing. By comparison to the heroes of the civil rights movement DDoSing tactics are craven.” I completely agree that drawing an analogy between DDoSing and Sit-Ins is wrongheaded, but it is hard for me to square Oxblood’s recognition of the indispensable link between nonviolent civil disobedience and invitation of arrest as a way of putting unjust laws themselves on trial and the role of anonymity and pseudonymity within the hactivist ethos more generally.

For another thing, I think that there are surely times when DDoS tactics and the like might be affirmed within notionally democratic societies for pretty much the same reasons Oxblood rightly affirms them in more obviously authoritarian ones like Iran. Further, I am quite troubled by what seems to me Oxblood’s rather glib declaration: “Back in the 60s Timothy Leary told the hippies to turn on, tune in, and drop out. That is much easier done these days with the proper technology and none of the same side-effects. Anonymous is something everyone should be. It’s the antidote to the commercial surveillance network otherwise known as the Internet.” I disagree both with the declaration that such anonymity is easily possible in liberal democracies (indeed, I think such anonymity may be altogether impossible in ubiquitously marketed and mediated spectacular societies such as our own, and I worry there is a whiff of dangerous technophilia in daydreaming otherwise) as well as with the suggestion that were such anonymity possible it would have no side-effects (I suspect the substance of freedom indispensably depends in a non-negligible measure on our exposure and accountability to unwanted or at any rate unexpected scrutiny). This is not to deny that there is an indispensable role for anonymous whistleblowers in the maintenance of reliable systems of information and support, and no small measure (though far from all, I would say) of hactivism properly belongs under this heading. Still, over-generalizing from that need into a comprehensive political worldview leads to the sort of full-blown foolishness the crypto-anarchists indulged in (for my take on crypto-anarchy start here and keep on reading as long as you can stand — the stuff is from my dissertation Pancryptics).

There really is an interesting ambivalence playing out throughout the interview (or at least it seems like that to me). I find it rather hard to square the absolutism of Oxblood’s declaration “Hacking Sony doesn’t do anything to improve human rights anywhere” with the more nuanced claim that precedes it: “Everything is on a case by case basis. With regard to Anonymous Iran, they’ve specifically targeted a government website that asks people to submit data on suspected subversives. It’s no big secret that such people are arrested, tortured, and even disappeared. So in this case I have zero problem with DDoSing the site to make a point.” I certainly agree with Oxblood that “[s]ocially conscious hackers… [and] [h]acktivism is a lot bigger than hacking.” But civil libertarianism is also a lot bigger than libertarianism, and I wonder whether vestiges of deeply-entrenched libertopian technoculture sometimes muddles the assumptions and aspirations of socially conscious hackers even at their best.” (http://amormundi.blogspot.com/2011/08/cdcs-oxblood-defines-hactivism-and.html)


Anonymous as an Antinomian Movement

By Dan McQuillan:


"Anonymous has been a direct link between the Arab Spring and the global Occupy movement, with a visible presence in camps and protests as well as online. But they are only part of a plurality of currents that echo the English Dissenters of the Interregnum. It was the Diggers who most famously ‘occupied’ St. George’s Hill in 1649 the name of “making the Earth a Common Treasury for All”, and it was the Levellers call in the Putney debates for democratic accountability and financial transparency from government that finds common ground with the discourse of the Occupy movement. Even the tension between the different currents of digital culture finds parallels in the 1640′s – Digger spokesman Gerard Winstanley’s distaste for the Ranters (“Ranting principles”, according to Gerrard Winstanley, denoted a general lack of moral values or restrain in worldly pleasures) speaks to the differences between Creative Commons and hacktivism.

As with antinomianism, any social movement deploying the affordances of General Computation and the Internet will tend towards heresy in the eyes of the Establishment (see the transcript of Cory Doctorow’s talk ‘The Coming War on General Computation’ at 28c3). This modern heresy finds it’s practice in hacking, “the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations” and “a tactic for transforming pre-existing elements to evoke meanings not originally intended in the raw material”. As Otto von Busch says in Abstract Hacktivism: “Hacking and Heresy can be seen as two practices of distributed reinterpretation of systems and political protocols, especially in relation to organic networked systems where the hacker or heretic claims the right to be co-author and co-designer”

The small group who started the catalytic pre-Occupy camp in Madrid in May 2011 included hackers. It was a moment that blended technical and abstract hacktivism:

“In the early hours of 16 May something unexpected happened. A group of some forty protesters decided to set camp at Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, instead of returning to their homes. One of them, a member of the hacker group Isaac Hacksimov, explained later: ‘All we did was a gesture that broke the collective mental block’. Fearing that the authorities may evict them, they sent out calls for support via the internet. The first person to join them learned about their action on Twitter.”

Taken together, these developments become epochal when they raise the curtain on forgotten social forms outside the framework of capitalist globalisation. Commenting on the fluid dynamics of the new politics, the Virtual Policy Network makes an explicit link to the pre-industrial: “A new politics has emerged from the affordances of the internet, and agile movements are continually emerging from the underlying flow of micro-political acts…If we look inside these movements we see complexity, and we can detect a core of deeply rooted pre-industrial human behaviours mediated through a digitally interconnected global society.”

So what can we expect from an antiomian atmosphere of dissent that blows across the internet and condenses in the squares? If our English Dissenters are any guide, it will involve commons-based innovation; as Charlie Leadbeater points out in ‘Digging for the Future’ “the Levellers wanted to raise food production through mutual ownership of underused land that would allow new technologies like manuring to take hold” and they believed “ that knowledge, even of the word of God, came from within rather than being handed down by the clergy. A productive, cooperative community would share and create knowledge rather than be ruled by the dogma of a narrow elite.”

As Nicolas Mendoza concludes about 4chan & Wikileaks: “Rather than being the result of a violent class struggle, the end of capitalist hegemony might be the result of a slow Internet-enabled process of migration, a dripping (to abuse once more the WikiLeaks logo) towards societies that organize around commons”ii. It wouldn’t be the first time there’s been an exodus; as David Graeber highlights in ‘Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology’ there are historical examples of withdrawal, as there are of societies that have resisted hierarchy & accumulation altogether. Even micro-examples like Crop Mob show how the affordances of the net can support pre-industrial modes of agriculture and the Foundation for P2P Alternatives relentlessly catalogues the worldwide prototyping of peer-to-peer alternatives, “a relational dynamic in which people exchange not with each other as individuals, but with a commons…on a global scale, enabled by internet technologies”.


In these times, in the streets and squares blown by the digital winds, there occur liminal moments of the kind anthropologist John Postill experienced with Spain’s Indignados:

“Many participants later reported a range of psychosomatic reactions such as goose bumps (carne de gallina) or tears of joy. I felt as if a switch had been turned on, a gestalt switch, and I had now awakened to a new political reality. I was no longer merely a participant observer of the movement, I was the movement. From that moment onwards, virals such as #takethesquare or #Iam15M (#yosoy15M) acquired for me – and countless other ‘converts’ – a very different meaning; they became integral to the new paradigm that now organises my emic understanding of the movement”.

Gabriella Coleman has identified the resonance of Anonymous with the horizontal network forms and decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy, a pattern clearly parallelled in Occupy. But rather than focus on organisational form we can open ourselves to their circulations, their tempos and their transmutations. By tuning instead into their textures and densities we may see them both as accretions of what Kathleen Stewart describes as an atmosphere: “An atmosphere is not an inert context but a force field in which people find themselves. It is not an effect of other forces but a lived affect – a capacity to affect and to be affected that pushes a present into a composition, an expressivity, the sense of potentiality and event. It is an attunement of the senses, of labors, and imaginaries to potential ways of living in or living through things. A living through that shows up in the generative precarity of ordinary sensibilities of not knowing what compels, not being able to sit still, being exhausted, being left behind or being ahead of the curve, being in love with some form or life that comes along, being ready for something – anything – to happen”.

The restless antecedents of the Ranters were the Brethren of the Free Spirit, an antinomian and egalitarian heresy that ranged across Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, challenging earthly powers and refusing to be repressed. By drawing parallels between the Antinomians of 1649 and the spirit of Anonymous I am suggesting, perhaps, the emergence of a Brethren of the Free Internet." (http://mediasocialchange.net/2012/01/21/anonymous-and-the-digital-antinomians/)

History

  1. See the article, Anonymous and the War on Scientology
  2. Overview of their actions by Gabriella Coleman, http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/tne/pieces/anonymous-lulz-collective-action


Political Evolution of the Group

"Over the past few months, Anonymous has constantly been in the headlines, but for reasons that are political rather than "lulzy." It seems the group has squarely concentrated its efforts on promoting freedom of information and speech by way of illegal, distributed denial-of-service attacks to crash the websites of authoritarian regimes in Africa and bolster the group's campaign for unfettered freedom of expression worldwide.

For the most part, the mainstream media remains befuddled by Anonymous, not knowing quite what to make of the group's mélange of illegal activity, political motivations and sardonic sense of humor. Moreover, as the group does not visibly toil on any ideological coalface, media outlets have been tempted to portray Anonymous as a group of lonesome hackers with nebulous but shadowy intent. Mass rallies -- like the ones in Wisconsin -- make for an easy, linear media narrative. But electronic subterfuge and virtual activism are often depicted as a bloodless sport -- the least compelling kind.

But now, things are getting bloody -- especially in the United States where Anonymous has gained considerable clout. This week, the group's actions spectacularly forced the resignation of beleaguered HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr after it was revealed that HBGary -- in tandem with Palantir Technologies, Berico Securities and Hunton and Williams -- were planning to initiate a disinformation campaign against pro-union organizers and opponents of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group uncovered the astonishing lengths the three firms would go to in order to discredit their enemies: They planned to set up fake personas on social network sites to damage their opponents and contemplated using malware to steal private information. This has now prompted the Democrats to push for a Congressional investigation. (Being Anonymous, they also brandished their signature irreverence by hacking Barr's twitter account and announcing that he was a "sweaty ballsack of caterpillars.")

But certain aspects of Anonymous' methodology continue to divide those outside and inside the hacker community. DDoS attacks are useful for garnering media attention to certain political causes, but they can also be interpreted as an ironic attack on the opposing side's right to free speech. The persuasiveness of this argument depends on the size and character of Anonymous' targets. Multinational corporations and governments may seem fair game, but what about private citizens? Are critics right to suggest Anonymous is eroding an already blurry distinction between public and private spheres?

Pinning down a cogent ideology of the group is difficult, too. We can surmise a few things with confidence: Anonymous is a zealous defender of freedom of information; the free exchange of information; the right to be irreverent; and the necessity of calling out gross abuses of power. But how committed are they to, say, social justice? This excerpt of a recent missive against the Koch brothers goes as far to imply some level of solidarity with America's working classes and union movement, but it is hard to tell if the group's motives are genuine:

-"Anonymous hears the voice of the downtrodden American people, whose rights and liberties are being systematically removed one by one ... we are calling for all supporters of true Democracy, and Freedom of The People, to boycott all Koch Industries' paper products. We welcome unions across the globe to join us in this boycott to show that you will not allow big business to dictate your freedom."

Generally speaking, as Anonymous is a decentralized, online community of individuals, it is probably misguided to slap a political label on the group. As a member explained to a newspaper in Baltimore: "We all have this agenda that we all agree on and we all coordinate and act, but all act independently toward it." It's a fairly vague description of the group's politics, to say the least. This brand of civil disobedience is a stark contrast to the centralized, "real-life" social movements of the past, which generally had an identifiable leader and hierarchical order. Theoretically, anyone can become a member, as long as they profess a loose identification with the group's objectives. Coldblood, a spokesperson for the group illustrates just how elastic this identification can be, suggesting that Anonymous is in fact an "online living consciousness, comprised of different individuals with, at times, coinciding ideals and goals." (http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/03/from-lulz-to-labor-unions-the-evolution-of-anonymous/72001/)

More Information

  1. Who are Anomymous?, See the article, Anonymous and the War on Scientology
  2. In-depth study of their tactics and evolution, at http://henryjenkins.org/2008/04/anon.html
  3. Cyber-anthropologist Gabriella Coleman's account of the group's practices, at http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/12/what-its-like-to-participate-in-anonymous-actions/67860/; also here at http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/tne/pieces/anonymous-lulz-collective-action
  4. What It’s Like to Participate in Anonymous’ Actions
  5. Some background at http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2008/03/anonymous.html
  6. Project Chanology
  7. Motivations of the group, by a member, http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/02/201121321487750509.html
  8. Live chat conversation by Al Jazeera's The Stream, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/05/201151917634659824.html


Videos

  1. well-done, 13 minute 'recruitment' video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3N130J3wjrg&feature=share