NEW HAVEN: The furor over the purloined cables released by WikiLeaks has now produced the first global internet civil-disobedience movement which one activist claims is inspired by Gandhi. The online picketing of business sites like MasterCard and Visa has not only shown the power of online volunteers, but also contradictions in Western democracies that preach press freedom abroad while shrinking it close to their own bones. Online discussions and interviews with hacktivists also reveal their own contradictions as they grope for direction with their newfound power.
The December 7th arrest of WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, on allegations of rape, unleashed a cascade of attacks surrounding the secret-sharing site. Computer assailants attacked WikiLeaks servers in Sweden, while Joseph Lieberman, chair of the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security, pushed corporations to withdraw services from the organization. When Amazon, PayPal, MasterCard and Visa complied, incensed pro-WikiLeaks hacktivists joined the fray with a call to “Avenge Assange,” suggesting his arrest was politically motivated, and protest internet censorship.
Thousands of protesters around the world joined a virtual internet gathering under the banner “Operation Payback,” many volunteering their computers as foot soldiers in distributed denial-of-service or DDoS attacks – flooding the websites of MasterCard and Visa and temporarily incapacitating them. Facebook and Twitter retaliated by closing Operation Payback user accounts, but not before hacktivists spread their cause across the web. The Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), software enabling people to lend their computers for these attacks, has reportedly been downloaded more than 53,000 times, leaving corporations and governments scrambling to prepare in case their websites become the next targets.
The pro-WikiLeaks protesters gathered under the umbrella name Anonymous, which Tunisian cyber-activist Slim Amamou calls, “a new spirituality.” It’s an organized, yet leaderless, disorganization, a flash mob that fits the decentralized nature of the web. Gregg Housh, a Boston-based cyber-activist jailed for hacking as a teenager, who claims inside knowledge of Anonymous but no participation in the recent attacks, explained: “There’s no membership, there’s no strategizing. It’s however it seems to flow.” Someone posts an idea online, interested people decide if it’s “great,” “bad,” or “horrible” and respond. Amamou calls the system, “reverse control” or “the brush principle – where whoever takes a brush and starts painting picks the color of the paint.”
While illegal, activists admit, their attacks differ from malicious criminal hacking as the deliberate strategy is to avoid collateral damage to the public. Amamou, who claims no personal involvement in such attacks, said the goal is to raise awareness of internet censorship and protect free expression on the web. Operation Payback considered targeting company infrastructure, but instead chose corporate websites to attack the public images of companies without jeopardizing services to consumers. Another distinction is the solicitation of mass volunteerism rather than the criminal seizure of involuntary “zombie” computers, or botnets, without the permission or knowledge of their owners. A self-identified Operation Payback organizer in Singapore who asked to remain anonymous said: “Many people may not see our actions as anything similar to Gandhi. But I believe it is somewhat related. We are both using civil disobedience … to state a message to the government.”
In interviews several activists claimed Operation Payback protests highlight the duplicity of Western corporations that terminated services on political and not legal ground. The corporations argue that by publishing leaked US diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks violated the companies’ terms of service prohibiting illegal behavior.
However, WikiLeaks has not been charged with a crime. The only person facing charges related to the cables is Army Private Bradley Manning. But his alleged theft of these documents is distinct from the right of a free press, including internet media, to diffuse information to the public in a responsible manner. Activists point out that corporations have not yet spoken out against news organizations that also published the cables, including The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel – though Lieberman has suggested The New York Times and other news organizations could be investigated for breaking US espionage laws.
In the absence of any action against those organizations, the arbitrary targeting of WikiLeaks, activists say, amounts to corporations serving as judge, jury and executioner. Speaking in support of Operation Payback, Housh said: “That kind of influence shouldn’t be wielded in [the US]. We live in a free society of laws, innocent until proven guilty.”
But Anonymous is not simply demanding that government enforce existing laws. Nor is theirs purely an act of civil disobedience designed, like Gandhi’s, to highlight and overturn the immorality of existing laws. Rather, many Anonymous participants shift the argument about censorship to target all corporate and State regulations, contradicting both law and the principles of civil disobedience which do not oppose law per se. The anonymous Operation Payback organizer in Singapore explained, “The internet is a free, almost anarchic, place that should not be controlled by governments.” In doing so, they’ve left themselves open to the same criticisms of not following due process as the corporations they attack, and brought upon themselves a host of questions about just rule over speech in cyberspace.
As Anonymous gains influence, it must confront its un-representative techno-elite status. Participants claim transnational internet identities, but this ideal is contradicted by its unequal global application: The mobilization of unprecedented participation in Operation Payback throws into relief unequal treatment meted out to different countries. One does not hear much about cyber-activism against vast and constant internet censorship in China, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia or Singapore. The organizer in Singapore explained, “The people that are participating in this, they want to free their Internet first before … the internets of others.” This commitment to regional allegiance mitigates the ideal of cyber-vigilante internet action without borders.
Anonymous members acknowledge that they must toe a delicate line in the degree of righteousness they invoke or risk losing support from segments of their internet community comprising pranksters motivated primarily by the “lulz,” internet slang for laughs or entertainment at the expense of others. While volunteers in Anonymous crowd-sourced activism change constantly, past successes suggest a significant dose of lulz helps participation reach a tipping point.
Operation Leakspin, a recent offshoot from Operation Payback, hopes to lure participants from the DDoS attacks to citizen-journalism analysis of the leaked cables with the call-to-action, “We, Anonymous, the people, will take this work on our shoulders.” This project, urging activists to expose and summarize cable details in online forums and newspaper comments, is reminiscent of WikiLeaks’ initial unsuccessful attempt to harness the public for document analysis, an effort it later abandoned to partner with established news organizations. Operation Leakspin will be tested on its ability to hold the internet crowd’s attention.
Volunteer hacktivists and the new LOIC tools they use have ushered in a new era increasing awareness of the enormous power of the web and its risks. Beyond the immediate issue of computer security, governments and businesses would do well to note that it’s young, bright, computer-savvy activists, the world’s future leaders, who question the way business is done. More than embarrassing a few government officials, the WikiLeaks saga raises profound questions about democracy, transparency and popular participation that need to be answered carefully for the sake of a stable and peaceful world.
Rebecca Wexler is a visiting fellow at the Yale University Law School Information Society Project. She is co-producing a documentary film on computer hackers with Oscar-nominated director Helen Whitney. Rights:Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online