In light of the Arab uprisings, the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests, and the emerging conflict over Internet copyrights, a new form of protest has attracted the attention of the media and national governments. The Arab Spring, characterized by mass mobilization of millions fighting against authoritarian regimes in power, resulted in the emergence of a new weapon aimed directly at state-controlled telecommunications. As millions of Arabs organized protests through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, organizations of “hacktivists” gained notoriety. Taking aim at the regimes in Egypt, Syria and Tunisia, “hacktivists” released the personal information of high-level officials and took part in Denial of Service attacks (DDOS attacks) on various government websites. More recently, this group has been heavily involved in supporting Occupy Wall Street through DDOS attacks on government websites in cities throughout the United States and Europe, and in addition they have fought against Internet copyright laws such as SOPA Bill in the U.S. The emergence of these “hacktivists” causes one to wonder who exactly are these individuals, what are their goals, and what does their presence signify for the future of Internet freedom.
A collective of hacktivists, known as “Anonymous”, first emerged on a no-holds barred image board called 4chan in the early 2000s, where users could post anonymously on any topic. Since the early 2000s, Anonymous has grown into a vast shared community of Internet users, boasting a variety of chat rooms, an image board, and other forums. First, searching for answers as to the true identity of Anonymous is an oxymoron in itself. To use Guy Fawke’s famous mask in V for Vendetta, the true identity of Anonymous is implied by the collective’s name: it is everyone and no one, an anarchic community of Internet users devoted to questioning authority and challenging the status-quo. Secondly, what are the goals of this collective? As evidenced by various news reports and through the targets of their DDOS attacks, Anonymous does not appear to have one fixed goal, but rather a variety of political agendas, all of which seek to attack perceived societal injustices. Anonymous’ action focuses on attacking, by virtual means, groups which ostensibly commit “crimes” or infringe on basic human rights, including national governments, hate-groups, corporations,and other organized groups. Essentially, their goal is to bring attention to what is wrong in the world. This may include anything from attacks on Neo-Nazi websites to support for University student protests and Internet freedom. In short, they are Internet anarchists in a world where privacy control over the Internet is increasing. Much like in Orwell’s “1984”, Anonymous is Emmanuelle Goldstein in his proverbial war with Big Brother.
What will the heightened emergence of Anonymous, or “hacktivist” groups in general, mean for the future of Internet freedom? Recent international arrests, and the extradition of one Anonymous member in New Zealand for allegedly hacking of U.S governmental websites sheds some insight. Further demonstrating the upward trend in arrests of “hacktivists” are the numerous recent arrests in the U.K, Sweden, and the Netherlands, following a series of attacks on PayPal for cutting off funds to Wikileaks Founder, Julian Assange. As governments move to pass Internet copyright laws, seeking to increase their control over the Web, groups like Anonymous will continue to act as an effective counterbalance to state control and a reminder of the importance of individual rights, namely freedom of speech. At the same time, however, Anonymous vigilantes, on this crusade to administer justice, risk releasing personal information of innocent low-level government officials, not necessarily responsible for executive decisions. As Anonymous and its affiliates grow larger and more powerful, they will further engender the revolutionary spirit of fighting injustice, all the while keeping governments in check and protecting individual freedoms. In the end, as V for Vendetta illustrates, “a revolution without hacktivism is a revolution not worth having”.
– Cody Levine