The Internet is an interesting place to spend time. Whether you are looking for “lulz” or the accumulated knowledge of humankind, its vast depths provide near limitless potential for entertainment, communication and learning. But what of the darker, more sinister corners of our generation’s favorite hangout spot? What happens when a medium that defines us — is us, in a way — takes on a life of its own? The recent campaigns of “Anonymous,” the self-proclaimed voice of the Internet generation, provide an interesting impetus for discussion about exactly where we stand in relation to this “voice of the Internet” and exactly how far we are willing to go to support it.
Anonymous began as a loosely connected group of cyberpranksters originating out of the depths of the Internet. Imageboards and Internet forums like 4chan.com provided a common heritage and culture-of-sorts for these nameless, tech-savvy individuals — often with a hilariously sick sense of humor — to rally around and discuss. Internet Relay Chat channels further provided a more intimate, yet still anonymous, setting for these individuals to conceptualize and coordinate technological pranks from all over the world. But what began as a largely fringe and arguably irrelevant group of 20-somethings has grown to become perhaps one of the more exciting and troubling developments the Internet has seen.
The group began to receive real world notoriety in 2008 with its distributed denial of service attacks against Church of Scientology websites in protest of the church’s perceived anti-freedom of speech attitudes. These attacks — using a vast and anonymous set of computers to request large amounts of information — effectively overload and paralyze targeted webpages. In 2009, the group’s activities expanded, targeting any organization — from the Australian government to Gene Simmons’ webpage — that was perceived to go against whatever values or ideologies Anonymous, and by extension the Internet itself, deemed worth fighting for. Most recently, Anonymous reached a new height of publicity by attacking groups such as PayPal, MasterCard and Visa after their refusal to process donations intended for WikiLeaks and attained true social relevancy by facilitating free flow of information in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.
Ostensibly, every attack has been committed in the name of the values that most well-informed, internet-savvy young people hold dear. In a way, the people of Anonymous are freedom fighters — campaigning for the defense of ideals such as the freedom of speech, democracy and free and open culture. But, as “The Dark Knight” (2008) has taught us, the ethics of vigilantism rarely exist within a right and wrong dichotomy. While many of us might support the same ideals as Anonymous, it is hard to avoid classifying many of their “missions” as terroristic.
The trouble is that a lack of accountability and control is inherent in any anonymous organization. No one specifically guides the organization — there is no leader to replace or department to complain to. However, in the fight against the oppression of people and suppression of information, there are few others to turn to. So what do we do? How do we draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not for an organization that is supposed to represent our interests, but over which we have no control?
While I really don’t know how to answer this question, I will say that the Internet is a democracy — perhaps a much truer form of it than in this country. Each individual — literally any person who gets online — has the power and the right to participate in and discuss internet activism to an extent of his or her own choosing. Though finding your way to the so-called depths of the Internet to participate in what is potentially what many consider terroristic activity is intimidating, it is surprisingly easy and — for the moment — anonymous. You don’t need “133t h4x” (internet hacking skills) to participate in the discussion, and as long as you aren’t advocating for illegal activities, you are just exercising your constitutional right to express your beliefs.
Internet activism is a reality that will continue to grow and become more relevant “IRL” (in real life). Whether you like it or not, groups like Anonymous will continue to fight for the ideals they believe we all hold dear, by means you may or may not support. Rather than standing idly by, try to participate in the discussion — temper or stoke the flames. In a world where important protest often falls on deaf ears, maybe the Internet is our collective chance to truly bring about change in our society. But only if we join in.