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‘Anonymous’ and the question of authenticity

David Meekby David Meek, University of Georgia

In this post I’d like to explore another case of online activism and several of the questions it brings up about what constitutes ‘authentic’ political participation. On 19 January 2012 the largest internet ‘attack’ in history took place. Anonymous, a decentralized collective of hacker-activists, or ‘hactivists’,  shut-down the websites of the United States government’s Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as those of  Universal Music Group, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America, and Broadcast Music Inc.

There were two primary reasons for this action: [i] to protest both the closure of internet file-sharing site, Megaupload, and the arrest of its executives; and [ii] to bring to light the perceived potential of the U.S. House’s ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ (SOPA) to threaten free speech.

Anonymous is a collective of international hacktivists which arose in 2008 and has focused its retaliatory actions against anti-piracy campaigns. The collective functions largely through imageboards, internet forums, and social networking sites. The 19 January action happened like this: Anonymous members developed a technology known as a ‘Low Orbit Ion Cannon’ (LOIC); through embedding links on Twitter, Facebook, and other online fora, internet users participated – some knowingly, others unknowingly – in a collective cyber-action. Anonymous claims that this was their largest protest to date with over 5,635 people participating.

Anonymous’s action – what’s known as a ‘distributed denial of service’ (DDoS) – was widely decried in the popular media as a cyber-attack (see, for example, Williams 2012). Writing about DDoSs, lawyer Jay Liederman argues that: “There’s no such thing as a DDoS ‘attack’. A DDoS is a protest; it’s a digital sit-it. It is no different than physically occupying a space. It’s not a crime; it’s speech”. Far from something “malicious”, he goes on, they’re “no different from occupying the Woolworth’s lunch counter in the civil rights era” (quoted in Reilly 2011). The FBI, whose website was temporarily shut down, not surprisingly has a different take, and has released a press statement reminding the public that “facilitating or conducting a DDoS attack is illegal, punishable by up to ten years in prison” and exposing “participants to significant civil liability” (FBI National Press Office 2012).

*         *         *

What of the question of ‘authentic’ political participation? Can online activism – actions in cyberplace – ever be considered as authentic as taking to (or, better, taking) the streets? Two ways of exploring this question include looking at the relations between political participation and risk and effectiveness. Analyzing the relation between risk and participation in this ‘cyber-attack’ is particularly tricky. If courts support the claims of the FBI that the LOIC technology is illegal, then both members who knowingly developed that technology and those who unknowingly downloaded it by following links on social networking sites embodied significant risk. But while their participation might be equal in the eyes of the law, I would argue that the nature of the participation is not equivalent: those unknowing ‘participants’ were essentially duped into participating. Regardless of how ethical Anonymous’ politics are, how effective are they? If we think about publicity, I would argue that this action was largely a victory for Anonymous, generating instant global awareness of the closure of Megaupload and its purported relation to SOPA (see, for example, Bradshaw 2012; Greenberg 2012; Smith 2012). On 20 January 2012, the day after the Anonymous action, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Smith scuttled the SOPA bill. At the same time as the Anonymous action, Wikipedia, Reddit, and thousands of smaller sites went offline in protest of SOPA. I don’t believe that the Anonymous action necessarily played a significant role in the postponement of SOPA, but it surely did augment the media publicity.

So, is online political participation less authentic than that in the streets? While risk is experienced online, it is certainly less immediate, and less physical, than that on the ground. Actions that take place online may be more effective than those in the streets, if we measure effectiveness by the level of awareness generated by the number of individuals involved in an action. However, while Anonymous can claim 6,000 ‘participants’ engaged in its action, the degree of knowledge and motivation among these individuals certainly varied widely. While virtual actions are not by essence any less real than those on the ground, those that unknowingly occupy a space, whether online or in Woolworth’s, are not active participants.

In this post I’ve positioned risk and effectiveness as metrics for comparing differing geographies of political participation. Surely, there are other ways one can analyze whether space plays a role in determining the authenticity of movement membership. One, for example, might ask the following questions:

  • Can participation in cyber and terrestrial actions be differentiated based upon the duration of involvement?
  • Is immediate physical risk incurred in the streets more authentic than removed legal risk online?
  • Is a DDoS akin to a ‘sit-in’, i.e. passive civil disobedience? Or is it a form of direct action?

Where do you stand on these questions, and what others are you left with? Feel free to add your comments, critiques, and questions and I’ll try to return to them in future posts.

References

Bradshaw T (2012) Anonymous in revenge attack for MegaUpload shutdown. FT Tech Hub 20 January http://blogs.ft.com/fttechhub/2012/01/anonymous-megaupload-ddos/ (last accessed 16 February 2012)

FBI National Press Office (2012) Search warrants executed in the United States as part of ongoing cyber investigation. 27 January http://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/warrants_012711 (last accessed 14 February)

Greenberg A (2012) Anonymous hackers hit DOJ, FBI, Universal Music, MPAA and RIAA after Megaupload takedown. Forbes 19 January http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2012/01/19/anonymous-hackers-claims-attack-on-doj-universal-music-and-riaa-after-megaupload-takedown/ (last accessed 16 February 2012)

Reilly R J (2011) ‘Homeless hacker’ lawyer: DDoS isn’t an attack, it’s a digital sit in. 28 September http://idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/09/homeless-hacker-lawyer-ddos-isnt-an-attack-its-a-digital-sit-in.php (last accessed 14 February 2012)

Smith G (2012) Anonymous responds to Megaupload takedown, claims credit for DOJ, RIAA, MPAA, Universal Music outages. Huffington Post 20 January http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/19/anonymous-megaupload_n_1217418.html (last accessed 16 February 2012)

Williams C (2012) Anonymous attacks FBI website over Megaupload raids. The Telegraph 20 January http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/9027246/Anonymous-attacks-FBI-website-over-Megaupload-raids.html (last accessed 16 February 2012)

 

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