“We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us,”chant suited individuals wearing Guy Fawkes masks as they march through New York City with supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But these masked individuals are more than disgruntled Americans protesting financial distress—these protestors are members of a enigmatic, anarchic Internet group named, simply, Anonymous.
Anonymous, as the baleful moniker suggests, is a group of individuals originating, organizing and communicating through the World Wide Web. The “organization” initiates acts of unconventional civil disobedience in reaction to a variety of international issues. The shared identity of Anonymous began in 2003 on the Internet forum 4chan, beginning a loosely organized online community which performs acts in line with a specific goal or moral value.
By 2008, the group had grown in strength and number to begin highly controversial, widely-public protests and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Anonymous calls these protests acts of collaborative “hacktivism,” a neologism describing civil disobedience through digital technologies for the goal of promoting Internet freedom and freedom of speech.
John Alspaugh, CU junior English major, says, “I really support Anonymous. They stand up for the little guy and make sure that the people with the power don’t step out of line.” Certainly, many of the group’s actions can be considered laudable. For example, the group has supported many campaigns (collectively entitled “Operation India”) against civil rights abuses caused by corruption in several south-east Indian cities. Earlier this year the group launched attacks against ninety-one websites of the Malaysian government in response to widespread censorship within the nation.
However, many of the group’s actions also have had damaging effects to innocent people. On March 28, 2008, the group was accused of hacking the support forums of the Epilepsy Foundation of America and injecting flashing animations, clearly designed to trigger migraine headaches and seizures for epileptics. Though the group denies affiliation to the perpetrators of the attack, a significant amount of circumstantial evidence suggests that the attack was indeed initiated by members of Anonymous. Many argue that the epilepsy attack reveals a fundamental weakness in anonymously organized online activist groups—without clear leaders, morals, or guidelines, individuals can maliciously act independently and the entire group gets blamed for the behavior.
Anonymous’s actions also bring into question the validity of vigilante justice in the context of the online world. When the foundations of the Internet were being established, the primary questions were technical—Which browser should be used? Which protocol allows for the best transmission of data? Today, a new breed of moral and social questions about the Internet must be evaluated and discussed. Specifically, the actions and behaviors of Anonymous bring into question the legality of actions performed when on the Internet. Is a denial- of-service attack against a foreign government a punishable offense? If so, in which country would the legality of these actions be tried? This century’s questions about the Internet are less for tomorrow’s computer scientists and more for tomorrow’s lawyers and social scientists.
But time is of essence in resolving these ambiguities. Anonymous’s efforts grow more powerful and wide reaching day by day. In April of this year, the organization breached the servers of Sony, Inc., gaining access to millions of users’ personal data. As a result the company’s popular Playstation Network was shut down for over a month. Furthermore, in recent years the group’s focus has become more political and conscious of international affairs.
For example, the group has been heavily involved in events surrounding the Arab Spring. Anonymous led several attacks against the governments of Egypt,Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco. In one attack, the group released names, email addresses and passwords of key Middle Eastern governmental officials. In other attacks, Anonymous took down government websites and replaced them with offensive or satyrical content. In cases such as these, it is difficult to discern whether the group’s rogue actions helped de-escalate or worsen conditions for individuals living in the target countries.
The group also has the ability to hit much closer to home. Anonymous recently announced plans to take down the popular social networking site, Facebook. In reaction to the alleged attack, Shayna Brody, CU senior environmental biology major, says “I don’t understand why they would want to hurt ordinary people; I keep all my photos on Facebook, and I really don’t want to lose them.”
Psychology attributes the behavior of Anonymous partly on the online disinhibition effect, which explains that people behave much differently on the Internet, an environment which is significantly different than typical reality. Essentially, the disinhibition effect refers to a loosening of social restrictions and norms that would be present in typical iterations. In some cases, this causes individuals to be more affectionate or open about their feelings; in other cases, however, it causes individuals to exhibit otherwise uncharacteristic bad behavior— which many argue is the case with Anonymous.
For many involved in “hacktivist” groups like Anonymous, the power of the Internet gives them a new-found freedom to act upon their personal meaning of social good. But for the unnamed victims of these groups’ misfires and potentially dangerous vigilante justice, the Internet is a dangerous place to share personal and financial information.
Many disagree how to react to Anonymous, their actions bring up questions never before asked about the Internet, security, privacy and Justice. Anonymous can no longer be ignored.