21st Century Statecraft, PIPA, and My Love Affair with Anonymous: Too Big to Judge

First, a message from Anonymous, vanguard of the revolution along with any and all associated hacktivist groups.

To the Citizens of Turkey:

We are Anonymous.  Over the last few years we have witnessed the censorship taken by the Turkish government, such as blocking YouTube, Rapidshare, Fileserve, and thousands of other websites.  Most recently, the government banned access to Google services.

These acts of censorship are inexcusable.  The Internet is a platform for freedom, a place where anyone and everyone can come together, discuss topics, and share information, without the fear of government interference.

We, Anonymous, will not stand by and let this go unnoticed.  We will fight with the Turkish people against their government’s rain of censorship.

Citizens of Turkey, Anonymous now fights with you.

We are Anonymous.  We are legion.  We do not forgive.  We do not forget.  Turkish government: expect us.

The hacktivist group Anonymous, which is still being blamed in some circles for the Sony hacks perpetrated by LulzSec, has demonstrably aligned itself against oppressive governments with censorship policies, as well as entities that support such regimes.  Anonymous has stood with—and continues to stand with—the people of Zimbabwe, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, Bahrain, Australia, Spain, Yemen, and Syria, and probably others I’m forgetting to include.  Almost if not all of these nations for their oppressive Internet policies, ranging from government regulation to WikiLeaks censorship to blocking websites entirely.

The message to the Turkish government arrives on the heels of the attack on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for their support for the Protect IP Act.  Last year’s version, which failed to pass, “would have given the government dramatic new copyright enforcement powers targeted at websites’ dedicated to infringing activities, even where those websites were not based in the United States” (EFF).

Anonymous directed a message to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warning of impending DDoS attacks and issued a call-to-arms regarding the Protect IP Act (transcript below the video):

Dear Citizens of the Internet, Citizens of Free Speech, Citizens of the United States:

We are Anonymous.  Over the past month, we have been examining the actions taken by the United States Chamber.  We have paid close attention to one new bill in particular: the Protect IP Act.  This bill would allow the United States government to force ISPs and search engines to censor websites they do not like under the guise of copyright protection.

Instead of reducing piracy, this bill endangers the free flow of information.  Through domain seizures, ISP blockades, search engine censorship, and the restriction of funding to accused websites, this bill takes Internet censorship to a new level.  The Internet is a place where anyone and everyone can come together freely to share information and opinions.  The freedom the Internet provides has served us well and driven our intellectual progress, sparked revolutions, and changed the lives of many, all of which has been accomplished without the interference of corporations, governments, or any other global institutions until now.

We must unite and stand unto those who wish to censor the Internet.  We must protect what is rightfully ours.  We must attack in defense of our homeland.

You are Anonymous.  You are legion.  You cannot forgive.  You cannot forget.

United States Chamber: expect a revolution.

The video ends with an excerpt from Hillary Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom in January 2010, in which she describes growing information networks as “a new nervous system for our planet,” likens the freedom to virtually connect to freedom of assembly IRL, and cites China, Uzbekistan, Egypt, and Vietnam as “spike[s] in threats to the free flow of information.”  She reminds us of our responsibility to ensure a free and open exchange of ideas.  While she summarily denigrates anonymity as an excuse to divorce real identities from online criminal behavior such as distributing stolen intellectual property, she at least goes on to say that “these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes” (Clinton).

Clinton discussed her term for “diplomacy in the age of Facebook and Twitter,” 21st century statecraft.  The initiative encompassed experimenting with mobile- and web-based technologies to expand diplomacy beyond the government-to-government level to include the ordinary citizen in international affairs.  In addition to more well-known new media initiatives undertaken or encouraged by the government, such as texting monetary donations to Haiti and the use of Twitter following the Iranian elections, 21st century statecraft also pushed for initiatives such as the Virtual Student Foreign Service, in which college students are virtually partnered with diplomatic officials abroad and contribute to international diplomacy efforts, and the implementation of mobile banking systems in the Congo and placing Congo’s ex-combatants on the radio as credible voices to directly urge militias to demobilize.

All this was circa 2009, 2010, and it still sounds innovative, practical, and pretty much awesome.  And somehow, the Protect IP Act (tl;dr version: “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property” Act) has made a comeback.

As Anonymous states in their message, if the bill is passed, the U.S. Justice Department will be able to force ISPs and search engines to block access to websites “believed to be” infringing U.S. copyright laws.  Companies doing business with these websites, such as advertisers and payment processors, would be ordered to cease working with them.  Critics have predicted disastrous consequences for freedom of speech and online information exchange should the bill come to pass.

In terms of potential casualties, YouTube remixers and uploaders come to mind, as does Project Gutenberg and other literary uploading sites.  The torrent hub The Pirate Bay (TPB), which has taken heat before, is also likely to disappear.  (It’s irrelevant but interesting to note here that TPB also hosts some of LulzSec’s torrents, in a lulzy, fuck-you sort of move.)  At the extremist 1984 or V for Vendetta end of the spectrum, any and all dissenters may get the axe regardless of actual activity.

This is exactly the sort of thing 21st century statecraft should be preventing.  As Sec. Clinton discussed, quoted at the end of Anonymous’s Protect IP Act call-to-arms, the freedom implicit in our constitutional rights is:

the freedom to connect–the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other.  The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace.  It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate.  Once you’re on the internet, you don’t need to be a tycoon or a rock star to have a huge impact on society.

While government initiatives like this one fizzle, or at least take backseat to the more pressing 2012 election issues, Anonymous and other hacktivists take immediate action and get quick results.  Sec. Clinton may denounce anonymity, but the peaceful protests it launches against governments known for oppression and human rights violations garner almost instantaneous media attention across the Internet if not on televised news.

It means something that the number of LulzSec’s Twitter followers keep climbing, and that Anonymous has divorced itself from the popular conception that it is solely *chan-based and therefore to be viewed as a bunch of disorganized 13-year-old /b/tards who only rally to the cry of abused animals.  Rather, Anonymous’s target list, messages, and growth across media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Blogspot, etc. attest to the group’s emotional(?) maturation.  Where its Zimbabwe hack indicated a lulz-based ethos, more recent attacks illustrate the severity of the situations it is attempting to redress.  Oppression is oppression, and Anonymous stands with the oppressed against their oppressors, wherever they may be.  It has found an ideology that is significant and meaningful, and methods that have a direct impact on people’s lives, and it has married the two peacefully, to an astoundingly effective end.

While certain media outlets still refer to Anonymous as fickle and prone to stupid mistakes (one individual cites their targeting of the IMF over Greece bailouts as an example of the latter), I think the content and mode of conveyance of their messages demonstrates the opposite.  This was underscored for me when I saw the Anonymous letter to NATO, following NATO’s statement that Anonymous is a threat to “government and the people”:

Message from Anonymous to NATO

Anonymous’s maturity is spelled out not only in the language of the letter but also in its tacit understanding of relationships between political entities and people, its expression of its own ideology, its parsing of the NATO report and formal response to NATO’s position on the HBGary attack, its attempt to undermine NATO’s position by revealing their (allegedly) real fear, and its reminder that an ideology cannot be killed, especially when its is espoused by legion.

Yes, it has that lofty, idealistic, stylized tone ascribed to fictional revolutionaries (and yes, V does come to mind).  Yes, ending with a proverb or saying is what we rhetoricians have often termed “cheesy – omit” in our first-year writing classes.  But the substance of these messages attest that there are larger objectives driving Anonymous, and that this is not a venture founded on undirected passion.  I think too many people are too ready to believe that a group of individuals who organize online are not really capable of productive organization or coherent group ideals.  And this does not seem to be true of Anonymous or any other hacktivist group currently active.

To break my own rule as a former first-year writing professor, I’m going to end in the style of Anonymous’s NATO letter, with (of all things) something out of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.  I’m thinking of the black-and-white conversation between ex-Commissioner Gordon and new commissioner Ellen Yindel, right after she asks him how he can support a vigilante like Batman.   Gordon responds with this:

I’m sure you’ve heard old fossils like me talk about Pearl Harbor, Yindel […] Fact is, we mostly lie about it.  We make it sound lke we all leaped to our feet and went after the Axis on the spot.  Hell, we were scared.  Rumors were flying, we thought the Japanese had taken California.  We didn’t even have an army, so there we were, lying in bed pulling the sheets over our heads—and there was Roosevelt, on the radio, strong and sure, taking fear and turning it into a fighting spirit.

Almost overnight, we had our army.  We won the war.  Since then, presidents have come and gone, each one seeming smaller, weaker… the best of them like faint echoes of Roosevelt […] A few years back, I was reading a news magazine—a lot of people with a lot of evidence said that Roosevelt knew Pearl was going to be attacked—and that he let it happen.

Wasn’t proven.  Things like that never are.  I couldn’t stop thinking how horrible that would be… and how Pearl was what got us off our duffs in time to stop the Axis.

But a lot of innocent men died.  But we won the war.  It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn’t judge it.  It was too big.  (Miller, The Dark Knight Returns. 96)

I realize it’s hardly unbiased or academic, but on a purely emotional level, this is what hacktivism feels like to me.  On some level, what our government is calling cyberterrorism, whose perpetrators deserve to be bombed, is what is getting people to sit up and take notice and take action.  Or getting civilians to stand up for their own rights.  Or spreading the word about human rights violations.  Or reminding us, repeatedly, that technology has provided us with the ability to actively participate in domestic and international affairs.  21st century statecraft at its finest, but in the hands of the people, unmediated by government.  The call-to-arms videos and letters occasionally include the viewer, calling us Anonymous, legion, exhorting us to resist injustice, to never forgive or forget.

Legislation condemns it but the army continues to form and the movement continues to mature.  I’ve seen terms like “techno-anarchist,” “crypto-anarchy,” and “cyber-terrorist” used to describe it.  And, whatever laws are ultimately passed against it, I don’t think I can condemn it as unlawful.  In the end, it’s just too big to judge.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at vyshalimanivannan.wordpress.com.

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One thought on “21st Century Statecraft, PIPA, and My Love Affair with Anonymous: Too Big to Judge

  1. Also, NATO states that Anonymous will be “infiltrated” and “persecuted”: http://tinyurl.com/3hzu3pe

    Links to NATO’s general draft on cybersecurity can be found in the article above.

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