Anonymous and the future of hacktivism

Published: 27/05/2013

Written by: Jo Squire
Originally listed under: WikiLeaks

Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old programmer and political organiser, committed suicide on 11 January after being hounded by the US Justice Department for his online activism.

Swartz’s many impressive contributions to the world of technology could have heralded an even more impressive technical career. But instead of using his talents to seek personal fame and wealth, he used his gifts to defend the rights of the users of this technology against governments and corporations that seek to limit those rights.

He set up an online activist group, becoming a key campaigner against the US government’s attempts to bring in legislation that would have severely curtailed the right to access online information.

He downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents – which he was entitled to download for free – with the intent of making them publicly and freely available. This that gave the US court system the excuse to hound him, charging him with offences that could have jailed him for up to 35 years.

While Swartz was never associated with the group Anonymous, his story illustrates many important aspects of contemporary hacktivism. The first of these is the notion of the internet as a contested space.

Profits

The rise and expansion of the internet as a mass medium over the past few decades have laid the groundwork for a contestation of rights between the users and the profit makers.

When the World Wide Web was created in the early 1990s, there was a general rejection of commercialism on the internet. John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney argue that internet users operated on the assumption that

[c]ommercialism and an honest, democratic public sphere did not mix. Corporate media were the problem, and the Internet was the solution. Good Internet citizens needed to be on the level; they should not hustle for profit by any means necessary.

Although not entirely free and democratic – it was, after all, based on military technology – the early internet was seen by its users as “theirs”.

Since then, the internet has become a mass medium. Today almost 40 percent of people globally are internet users, up from 10 percent 10 years ago. Corporations are able to conduct traditional business across the globe almost instantaneously. The spread of the internet has also opened up entirely new and previously unheard of corporate spheres.

It has allowed a space in which data have become a valuable commodity at the same time as allowing data to be more accessible than ever to potential consumers. Corporations that hope to capitalise on data try to clear out the online commons and subjugate internet users to the ever encroaching profit motive of online companies. In many ways, hacktivism is a response to this contestation of rights.

Contemporary hacktivism is both an adjunct to activism around more traditional causes and a cause in its own right – activism to defend and extend the right to free and open information.

An unholy marriage

Governments and states internationally have been far from neutral arbiters in this process, introducing many bills, laws and treaties to restrict the rights of users of the internet and powerfully asserting the rights of the ruling class as a whole. John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney write that governments constantly act to defend the interests of online corporations over users:

In the realm of the Internet, a state-corporate alliance has developed that is matched perhaps only in finance and militarism. It makes a mockery of traditional economics, with its emphasis on an independent private sector responding to a competitive market ... [The] stories of how Amazon and PayPal cooperated with the government in the WikiLeaks affair ... point to the demise of the separation of public and private interests.

Restricting access to readily available information is a way to maintain and extend the commodification of data. And the key way in which this commodification can be achieved is by making information a scarce resource, by limiting its accessibility.

People like Aaron Swartz are punished because they give away for free what some corporations want to sell for a profit. In the case of Swartz, the corporation itself wasn’t prepared to prosecute, so the US government stepped in on behalf of big business as a whole. A central argument in the government’s case against Swartz was that the obscure titles on JSTOR (a digital library of academic journals and books) that he downloaded were worth millions of dollars.

At the moment, the Australian government is considering extensions of so-called national security laws that include proposals for the mandatory retention of all data relating to all your internet and telecommunications activity for up to two years and a proposal to make it a crime to refuse to provide authorities with passwords for encrypted communications. As Electronic Frontiers Australia points out, this could very well make it a crime not to provide your Facebook password to “authorities”. So, while governments and corporations have the right to privacy in this brave new world, you and I certainly do not. (A good resource to start learning how to protect your online privacy is the CryptoParty handbook.)

Anonymous

The concern about open access to data is one of the general characteristics of hacktivism today. What else characterises contemporary hacktivism? In an interview with information activist Asher Wolf, a former member of the hacker group LulzSec described hacktivism as

the use of computer hacking, the internet, and technology to try to effect social change or spread a message. It’s similar to normal activism except it takes place online. For example, instead of a sit-in, you have a [denial of service] attack. Instead of graffiti, you have website defacements.

Anonymous, the most well-known hacktivist network, is a large, decentralised, network of internet users who are primarily involved in online activism, but who have also ventured into real world activism.

Anonymous started off through discussions on a range of topics on a website called 4chan. Over time, this forum shifted from being just for discussion to being an organising hub. Initially, the Anonymous operatives (hereafter Anons) would organise stunts for the lulz (for laughs). These were generally more akin to online practical jokes than political protest.

Their first major political operation was an attack on the Church of Scientology in response to its attempts to censor an online video about Scientology. In what was dubbed Operation Chanology, Anonymous ran a campaign against the church, including a video message that included the now famous rallying cry of Anonymous: “We are Anonymous, we are legion, we do not forgive, we do not forget. Expect us.” Alongside other actions, public protests were held outside Scientology’s offices, involving about 7000 people across 100 cities worldwide.

The Scientology protests were significant in the life of Anonymous for two key reasons. Firstly, they were a shift away from actions just for laughs, and a move to the more political issue of internet censorship. Second, these protests did not simply exist within the online world, with a seemingly individualised action behind a computer screen, but also occupied a space as a collective action in the public realm.

Actions like these have meant that, for significant numbers of those associated with Anonymous, there has been an assessment made about the relationship between online activism and activity happening in real life. This is one of the reasons why Anonymous participated in its own ways in the Arab spring and the Occupy movement, rather than simply dismissing the street protests as “old” or “boring”, a common sentiment in online activism.

The next major foray into the world of politics came with the attacks on credit card companies and PayPal in retaliation against those companies shutting down payments to WikiLeaks.

These attacks mainly took the form of distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks. DDoS attacks take the form of a massive number of network requests to access a website. The site can’t handle such a large number of requests and so shuts down temporarily. The result can be achieved with relatively few people. Hundreds of thousands of requests can be sent to a website by relatively few people using specialised tools.

The Anon weakness

Gabriella Coleman, of McGill University, who is a prominent sympathetic commentator on Anonymous, says:

Anonymous is not a singularity, but is [composed] of multiple, loosely organised nodes with various regional networks in existence. [But] Operations don’t simply spring out of the ether and can be easily linked to a particular network ... At minimum these networks usually will lay claim to, or deny, the source of an operation.

From the outside, Anonymous can look very disorganised, but, as Coleman implies, there are worked-out internal organising methods. Crucially, democratic organising does not form a central concern in Anonymous’ organising.

At the core of democracy must be accountability. Members of a democratic organisation must be able to participate in decision making and know that the people responsible for carrying out the decisions of the group are accountable to those who participated in that process. Anonymous’ organising methods specifically reject accountability.

Anybody can claim to be Anonymous and anyone can embark on an Anonymous action. Ideally, organising for these actions would occur in one of the pre-existing forums, but, if it doesn’t, it could simply be the work of a new network or affinity group.

In March 2012, a British man named James Jeffery, claiming that he was an Anon, hacked a website and defaced it with the Anonymous logo. The website was for an abortion health care provider, and the details of 10,000 women who had sought information from the service were stolen. Around the same time, others from Anonymous hacked Vatican websites, claiming, in part, it was a response to the anti-choice policies of the church.

Both of these views can easily fit within the Anonymous framework. An attack in favour of abortion rights can happen at almost exactly the same time as one against them, both in the name of the same organisation. There is no accountability to the rest of the network, nor any attempt to limit such contradictory approaches.

Individuals can also not be held to account for their actions by the rest of Anonymous. We saw the effect of this most starkly with Sabu, a key figure of the hacking group LulzSec. Sabu was arrested by the FBI in 2011. Immediately upon being caught, he ratted, handing over information on the group and individuals within it. He also acted as the FBI’s agent provocateur in the organisation, promoting riskier and more high profile operations as a way of trying to catch other LulzSec operatives.

While having democratic accountability within an organisation doesn’t rule out such things occurring, thoroughgoing democratic discussion and processes do make them less likely, if only because other members of the group can hold those in assumed or elected leadership positions to account.

Beyond hacktivism

Moving beyond the organising methods of Anonymous, it is also important to have a critique of hacktivism generally, though, importantly, this critique does not negate the possibility of effective online activism, nor does it dismiss the successes of Anonymous. It is beyond dispute that Anonymous have been extremely successful in raising awareness about and more than a little annoying to a number of their targets.

But one of the problems that Anonymous have not always been able to deal with is how you target those responsible for the actions you object to. The methods employed by hacktivists often leave the innocent within the cross hairs. A good example of this is the recent attack on an ABC website in protest against an interview of Geert Wilders on his recent Australian tour. This interview was extremely sympathetic to Wilders, a notorious Islamophobe. The response of a group of Anons was to hack the ABC’s Making Australia Happy website.

The result was that the user names, email addresses, passwords and some personal information of 40,000-50,000 people were exposed and dumped on public sites. Who actually got hurt? The ABC’s online credibility certainly took a hit. But the key victims in the attack were those whose accounts and personal details were compromised – people who are entirely innocent in the ABC’s treatment of Wilders.

Similarly, towards the end of last year, Anonymous launched OpVendetta or OpAustralia – a fairly general anti-government operation to mark Guy Fawkes day. Australian Anons used this operation to target websites on the .au domain. With such a broad sweep of websites, it is understandably easier to target cheaper websites with little security than more strategic websites, such as government sites. According to Asher Wolfe, a Melbourne-based information activist who was a founder of the CryptoParty movement, the sites defaced included

the Fremantle Arts Centre, the Clinical Practice Guidelines Portal (a web-portal for medical professionals) and the Quality of Life Alliance (a disability support network). Previously, individuals working under Anonymous’ banner claimed the movement identified with values including “social justice” and “freedom of information”. But hacking arts, medical and disability services’ websites doesn’t gel particularly well with those ideals.

Egypt

Anonymous have been able to garner significant media attention over the past couple of years because they are seen as audacious and new. One aspect of this audacity is the ability to inspire a large number of young people who want to do something against the powers that be. The fact that Anonymous’ Guy Fawkes masks are seen at major physical space protests shows that there is a real possibility for the intersection of online and physical activism for those who have been inspired by Anonymous. We saw such an intersection with Anonymous’ response to the mass uprisings of the Arab spring.

After the first uprisings of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, the dictator Mubarak literally shut down almost all the internet in Egypt. The reason for this was not, as some commentators have theorised, because social media in and of themselves were enough to overthrow an entrenched dictator, but, rather, because social media and other online communication tools were used for effective organising by revolutionaries throughout Egypt.

Cutting off the internet, while not enough to stop the revolutionary momentum, was still a blow to the revolutionaries. Anonymous’ response was to use their tools and knowledge to distribute online care packages to activists in Egypt. These packages were zip files with, for example, phone numbers and instructions that Egyptians could use for dial-up internet access, software to provide users with anonymity when online, firewalls, a secure browser called TOR, first aid manuals and cryptography manuals.

These care packages gave Egyptian activists crucial tools to get them back online and using the internet as the organising tool that it had been previously. Similar care packages were also distributed in other countries during the Arab spring and in Gaza during Israel’s attacks last year.

At the same time, Anonymous, both inside and outside Egypt, added to the regime’s inability to keep order in the country by hacking Egyptian government websites. On 2 February 2011, the internet was switched back on in Egypt. The Twitter account AnonymousIRC tweeted “Welcome back to the Internet, #Egypt. Well, except [the Ministry of Information] – you stay down.” Anonymous had just hacked the Ministry of Information website.

IT workers’ potential

Online activism and hacktivism will, undoubtedly, increase in the future. Partly, this is because of the ongoing attempts by governments and corporations to clear the online commons and the response that will be required to assert the rights of internet users against these encroachments. Partly, it is because the online space is becoming increasingly important as an organising forum for protest movements. Partly, it is because governments and corporations – the very targets of the left and protest movements – operate more and more online and, thus, are vulnerable to online activism.

The question for the left becomes what attitude to have to this form of activism. One of the reasons people are attracted to hacktivism is that it can seem like having a real effect – hacktivists report that shutting down a website for a few hours can make you feel powerful. But such a feeling will become harder and harder to attain as governments and corporations increase their online security measures and make effective hacktivism more and more difficult.

Furthermore, such a feeling of power is fairly illusory. DDoS attacks or defacing a website cause temporary inconvenience to a company, but do not have lasting effects, aside from prompting a security reassessment by the target.

What does have the potential to display real power in the online world, in a way that we haven’t yet really seen and can really only speculate about, is the collective industrial action of IT workers. Every industry and branch of government is so thoroughly dependent on IT and, hence, IT workers, that the collective action of these workers can have real, tangible and measurable results. The recent strike of general and academic staff at the University of Sydney included action by IT workers. It was reported that wi-fi, internet and phone lines were down as the strike hit.

The potential, though, does not end with bringing IT systems down. Their role as the experts in the configuration and use of IT infrastructure also means that IT workers, organised as part of the working class, have the potential to reshape some of the existing IT infrastructure so that it can be used by, for and in the interests of the working class as a whole – removing copyright restrictions on online data or remodelling for-profit websites so that they are freely accessible to everyone, for example. IT workers can play a role in reclaiming the online commons.

The specialised nature of IT work has meant that IT workers have historically seen themselves as elite individuals, rather than part of a collective class and so have been difficult to organise. However, this will probably change as the profession continues to be proletarianised.

A lot of hacktivism rests on the assumption that it is the only thing that politically conscious people in the IT world can do to effect change. On the contrary, the key thing that those of us working in the industry can do is to intersect with our fellow IT workers and convince them that our power runs a lot deeper than the momentary individualised actions of hacktivism. We can have more permanent and far-reaching effects in reshaping the experience of the online world, just as the working class as a whole has the potential to reshape the world in the interests of the working class through the exercise of its social power.