This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Leah Anthony Libresco
Advisor: Bryan Garsten April 25, 2011
Introduction In February of 2011, a baby girl was born in Egypt and given the name Facebook Jamal Ibrahim.1 Her father chose the name to honor the role the popular social networking site had played in the Tahrir Square revolt that brought down Hosni Mubarak’s thirty year rule at the beginning of 2011. The Egyptian people used Facebook to coordinate demonstrations and to share information during the protests, and the gratitude toward the social network felt by Jamal Ibrahim, the father of little Facebook, was widespread. During demonstrations, some protesters marched with signs that read “Thank you, Facebook” in Arabic or carried posters featuring a picture of Mark Zuckerberg digitally alteredto show him holding up a message of support to the protesters.2 A wide range of media outlets went so far as to label the uprisings in Egypt as the Facebook Revolution, but their praise may have been hasty and overblown.3,4,5 New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell tried to stop any lionizaton of social networks after news media began to push the story following the failed demonstrations in Iran in the summer of 2009. Gladwell argued that online media and social networks could not produce the kinds of connections required for successful activism. Activism and revolution require passion and
Tsotsis, Alexia. “To Celebrate The #Jan25 Revolution, Egyptian Names His Firstborn ‘Facebook.’” Tech Crunch. (2/19/11). http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/19/facebook-egypt-newborn/
Stopera, Matt. “‘Thank You, Facebook’ Protest Sign.” BuzzFeed.com. (1/11). http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/thank-you-facebook-protest-sign
Rachman, Gideon. “Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt.” Financial Times. (2/14/11). Hauslohner, Abigail. “Is Egypt to Have a Facebook Revolution?” Time. (1/24/11). http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2044142,00.html
Pfeffer, Anshel. “Facebook Revolution.” Haaretz. (1/21/11). http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-send/facebook-revolution-1.338340
loyalty to others in the movement characterized by strong ties. Gladwell does not believe that the nature of social media and online communities allow them to be bent to this purpose. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.6 The weak ties of social media cannot galvanize protesters to risk their lives on barricades or to face down police barrages. Gladwell feared that praise of weak tie networks would blur further the line between true commitment to a cause and the easy, low risk contributions fostered by Facebook fan pages soliciting donations. The lack of hierarchy and accountability in diffuse networks, Gladwell hypothesized, would prevent them from ever being truly effective. Gladwell concluded glumly that online activism was eroding respect for the kind of advocacy that makes a difference. [T]here is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.7 Gladwell’s salvo did not shift the opinions of the headline writers or journalists who continued to credit social media for social change. His attack did not move ordinary citizens who, according to a Pew poll conducted at the end of 2010, still believed the internet was a powerful force for protest and activism. Sixty-five percent of respondents who used the internet for any purpose agreed that the internet had a major effect on the ability of groups to organize
Gladwell, Malcolm. “Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted.” The New Yorker. (10/4/10). http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell
events and actions. Nearly the same proportion believed that online activities had a major impact on society at large.8 The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia further convinced many Americans of social media’s power. They did not convince Gladwell. In February of 2011, he wrote another piece for The New Yorker News Desk blog to rebuke the media for the spin they were putting on the revolts across the Middle East and Africa. Gladwell did not object to the type of activism being praised, as he did in his first piece, but he believed the online component of the protests was well nigh irrelevant to the main story. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone— and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years— and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.9 Gladwell is mistaken to conclude that the method of communication can be divorced from the message conveyed. New forms of media change the way citizens think about activism and their own power to check the power of their government. The most frightening change is not the diminution of activism to weak-tie affiliation. Far more dangerous is the shift to activism untrammeled by accountability, driven by an internet culture of anonymity. In an increasingly digitized world, protests are not only planned online, they may be carried out in virtual space against online targets. This kind of protest has been subject to little
Rainie, Lee; Purcell, Kristen; Smith, Aaron. “The Social Side of the Internet.” Pew Internet and American Life Project. (1/18/11). http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/The-Social-Side-of-the-Internet/Summary.aspx
Gladwell, Malcolm. “Does Egypt Need Twitter?” News Desk blog for The New Yorker. (2/2/11). http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/02/does-egypt-need-twitter.html
regulation, and the difficulty of tracing online actions makes it more problematic to investigate and prosecute online organizers who may live abroad (or may only appear to live abroad). The low levels of interest and paucity of knowledge that many lawmakers display for online developments erodes belief in the legitimacy of their authority among online activists. These kinds of activism may be appropriate in the middle of a revolution against an unelected despot, but if they are allowed to become part of the acceptable range of activity in liberal democracies, they have the potential to be extremely destabilizing. Activists ought to be connected to the real-world consequences of their actions; anonymous online communities distance protesters from their opponents and, in countries where speech is protected, interfere with public evaluation of political ideas.
Deliberative Democracy To gauge the possible consequences of new kinds of activism, it is necessary to define the system that they will affect. I will consider the impact of these new technologies and new communities primarily in the framework of Western, liberal democracies. Although these new models of engagement have received the most coverage when they have been used against tyrannical governments, it is prohibitively difficult to judge their effect in the midst of revolution. It will be a long time before new systems are constituted and political theorists can evaluate the role that online groups play in political engagement. Social media-based communities have had less of a dramatic impact on Western, liberal democracies than they have had in the Middle East, but liberal democracies and individual citizens have been targeted by these groups. Even when their own country is not being targeted,
citizens in these democracies sometimes join online efforts to visit retribution on foreign governments using new online tools. These personal experiences, augmented by frequent news reports on this phenomenon, increase the probability that the citizens of liberal democracies will be familiar with the power of social networks and more likely to use them as a supplement to or substitute for traditional activism. Before these techniques become commonplace, it is necessary to examine whether they can be incorporated into a healthful model of democratic political action. Activism is intended as a signal of the strength of support for a certain action or principle in the population and seeks to galvanize other citizens into joining the movement. By necessity, activism must be public speech that both reflects and shapes the voice of the people. Political scientist James Fishkin works to design political structures that best represent the general will. Whether the institution being reformed is a system of polling to assess policy preferences accurately or the entire scheme of representative government, Fishkin believes the same set of principles must be taken into account. Arguments on rival positions get an extended hearing, and each side has a chance to answer the other. The same information is available to all. People are present and engaged by the process. They do not merely listen. They also participate, in a context which is small enough that each can credibly believe that his or her individual voice counts. And they discuss the issues in an atmosphere of mutual respect, attempting to find common ground.10 All large-scale political systems violate at least some of these principles, and online communities should not be blamed for reflecting some of the failings of modern democracy and modern media. Social networks online may enable the balkanization of media sources,
diminishing the opportunities for the public to have access to the same data, but this flaw is not
Fishkin, James S. The Voice of the People. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. p. 34.
unique to new media. Similarly, although online groups are often too big to run forums where every user can have his or her own voice heard, this defect is inherent in almost every American political institution; thus, online message boards ought not be condemned for falling victim to the same errors. The unique danger of online communities joining the political discourse is their members’ commitment to anonymity and the resulting decrease in accountability. Linking a citizen’s opinions to his or her identity is not one of Fishkin’s precepts for promoting deliberative democracy, but disjointing an individual from the consequences of his or her speech weakens an institution’s ability to promote any of Fishkin’s premises. Anonymity widens the gap between a person and his or her actions; when it becomes part of online culture, the effect is augmented by the perceived distinction between life online and “real life.” It is harder to connect choices in virtual worlds to their offline consequences. When only some political actors are anonymous, it is difficult to give both sides a fair hearing; one group can vanish under questioning. Anonymity saps the ideal of mutual respect when it is not universal. Fishkin’s work drew on “The Face-to-Face Society” in which Peter Laslett explored whether the values and institutions of small, intimate communities could be scaled up for national governance. In their collaborative work, Laslett and Fishkin tried to compensate for the increased distance and isolation inherent in a large-scale country. Online groups present a new challenge; instead of distancing citizens from each other, anonymity distances the citizen from him or herself. In addition to not being able to see the face of a fellow citizen and share a connection, internet users frequently remove their own face and identity from the public square
entirely. Unless political theorists can invent new political institutions that can mitigate this dissociative distance, online communities will warp the public square and the discourse on which democracy depends.
Anonymous Speech Anonymity does have a role in political discourse, but the types of speech that ought to be shielded by anonymity have been the subject of fierce debate since America’s founding. Anonymity protects whistleblowers from retribution and allows members of stereotyped minorities to speak out without being viewed through the lens of their stigma. anonymity can hide conflicts of interest and hidden purposes. However,
If a speaker proves to be
deceptive, anonymity protects him or her from being penalized and prevents other citizens from learning from their mistakes. Until the 1890s, the United States did not promote a secret ballot. Voters brought preprinted ballots backing a party line to the polls. In this system, anyone could, and often did, waylay voters to check which party they were backing and beat them or bar their way if they were in support of the opposition.11 Any attempt by voters to hide their ballot and avoid accountability was decried as the kind of cowardice that “would make any nation a nation of scoundrels, if it did not find them so.”12 Philosopher John Stuart Mill opposed adoption of a secret ballot in Considerations on Representative Government. Although he agreed that secret ballots were necessary if threats
Lepore, Jill. “Rock, Paper, Scissors: How we used to vote.” The New Yorker. (11/13/08). http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/10/13/081013fa_fact_lepore 12 Randolph, James. As quoted in Lepore, Jill. “Rock, Paper, Scissors: How we used to vote.” The New Yorker. (11/13/08). http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/10/13/081013fa_fact_lepore
against voters became prohibitively coercive, he did not believe that the principle should be dismissed because of these exceptional cases. Mill claimed that a vote was not a right to which every man was entitled, but a trust bestowed upon him by his fellow citizens. In order to properly discharge that trust, it was necessary that a citizen vote in front of his fellows. [T]he voter is under an absolute moral obligation to consider the interest of the public, not his private advantage, and give his vote, to the best of his judgment, exactly as he would be bound to do if he were the sole voter, and the election depended upon him alone. This being admitted, it is at least a prima facie consequence that the duty of voting, like any other public duty, should be performed under the eye and criticism of the public; every one of whom has not only an interest in its performance, but a good title to consider himself wronged if it is performed otherwise than honestly and carefully.13 Mill did not carry the issue, but the framework of his argument remains relevant. After the successful passage of Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage in California, pro-gay activist groups began trying to publicize the names of the signatories to the petition to put the referendum on the ballot. The names were in the public record, but the signers argued that they ought to be able to petition for a referendum anonymously, just as they were able to vote for that referendum anonymously in a secret ballot. To hold them publicly accountable for their activism, they argued, would dampen their exercise of free speech. After several rounds of appeals, the Supreme Court denied their pleas for anonymity in an 8-1 decision in Doe et al. v. Reed.14 The justices added a Mill-like caveat – they held that identity should be disclosed by default and that exceptions would be made only if there were serious risk of harm.
Mill, John Stuart. Considerations on Representative Government. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2008. p. 156. Hennessey, Kathleen. “Supreme Court rules for disclosure of initiative signatures.” Los Angeles Times. (6/25/10). http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jun/25/nation/la-na-supreme-court-petition-20100625
If citizens must put themselves in severe danger to participate in the political system, it is reasonable to grant them anonymity. When political participation is low risk and low impact, anonymity is relatively harmless but also not required. The larger the scope of a policy for which activists lobby, though, the more necessary it is to disclose the identity of its backers. Moreover, if citizens choose to act in the political sphere toward an end that will disrupt or harm the lives of others, those in danger should have a right to know the identity of the people targeting them, so that they may muster a response. Most online activity in liberal democracies is low risk; even the most aggressive online pundits are unlikely to end up in physical confrontations with any of their targets. It is unlikely that the members of online activist communities require anonymity to be able to safely share their political opinions. Examining the damage done by 4chan, the largest and most vibrant online community, during its forays into the public square suggests that these social networks hold too much power to operate anonymously.
Anonymity and Online Action The 4chan message board was designed by Christopher Poole in 2003 as an Englishlanguage web forum to share images, modeled along the lines of similar Japanese websites.15 One subsection of the site, called /b/, is not bound by the rules governing the rest of the
Brophy-Warren, Jamin. “Modest Web Site Is Behind a Bevy of Memes.” Wall Street Journal. (7/24/08). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121564928060441097.html
boards. /b/ is responsible for 30% of the traffic on 4chan, making it the most popular section the site.16 It is a nexus of online culture and the origin of most common internet slang. Individuals on 4chan post under any username they choose — there are no log-ins, and no name is permanently linked to an identity. Almost all of 4chan’s users post under the same name: Anonymous. The site gained international attention for its ‘trolling’ stunts – abusive attacks on individuals or companies. These attacks are sometimes framed as vigilante justice to avenge an unprosecuted crime, but other operations are done simply out of a spirit of the perverse and are done “for the lulz” a slang term meaning: just for the fun of it. In a typical incident, members of 4chan hacked the MySpace page of a 13 year old boy after his suicide to post digitally altered photos depicting him as a zombie. Members of 4chan then found his home phone number and made prank calls to his home, claiming to be his ghost, for over a year and a half.17 The anonymity of 4chan lends itself to abusive behavior. Anonymity disconnects people from their own actions, a phenomena psychologists term “deindividuation.” This sense of disconnection from self is at play when a crowd encourages a potential suicide to jump to his or her death, an action that no individual in the crowd would take on his or her own. 18 Unmoored from a sense of personal responsibility and unable to witness the hurt they cause, 4chan users practice casual cruelty. 4chan users have become the online equivalent of the Greek Furies, claiming a right to vengeance when a wrong has been committed. After a woman was caught on film shutting a cat
Sorgatz, Rex. “An Interview With The Founder of 4chan.” Fimoculous.com. (2/18/09). http://fimoculous.com/archive/post-5738.cfm 17 Schwartz, Mattathias. “Malwebolence.” New York Times Magazine. (8/3/08). http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/magazine/03trolls-t.html 18 Postmes, T., and Spears, R. (1998). Deindividuation and anti-normative behavior: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 123, 238-259
in a garbage bin for over fifteen hours, the members of 4chan identified her, using clues on the film, and publicized her address and phone number. She began receiving death threats. 19 In a similar case, internet users on 4chan and elsewhere identified a girl who was videotaped drowning puppies. Her personal information was shared on a Facebook page titled “Kill the
Puppy Throwing Girl.”20 Retributive justice (usually carried out by 4chan) has become part of the cultural vernacular across the internet. After a postal worker filmed surreptitiously a
customer who harassed him with racial epithets, one of the first comments on the YouTube video was “4CHAN FIND HER!!”21 This model of retributive justice has spread worldwide. In China, the practice is called renrou sousuo yinqing, translated as “human flesh search engine.”22 In a characteristic incident, when a woman committed suicide after discovering her husband’s infidelity, internet users tracked down the husband and his paramour and began a campaign of steady harassment. The cyber-vigilantes succeeded in threatening the couple’s families, getting them fired from their jobs, and forcing them to flee their home. One user wrote as a rallying cry, “Pay attention when you walk on the street. If you ever meet these two, tear their skin off.”23 The internet users lashing out against these suspected deviants may have only a casual knowledge of the facts of the case or the evidence linking the target with the offense, but they strike savagely anyway. After all, according to the Pew Internet and American Life project, one-
Matyszczyk, Chris. “Woman puts cat in bin, Web strikes back” CNET News. (8/28/10). http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-20014988-71.html 20 Matyszczyk, Chris. “Puppy-throwing girl offers purported YouTube apology.” CNET News. (9/10/10). http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-20015305-71.html 21 Chen, Adrian. “Postal Worker Secretly Films Customer’s Racist Rant.” Gizmodo.com. (11/11/10). http://gawker.com/5688054/postal-worker-secretly-films-customers-racist-rant 22 Downey, Tom. “China’s Cyberposse.” The New York Times. (3/3/10). http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Human-t.html 23 Ibid.
third of all Americans think it is ‘easy’ to tell true data from false on the internet. 24 The younger and more tech savvy someone is, the more likely she or he is to trust her or his own ability to spot inaccurate information. People’s false confidence is of little comfort to people like Triz Jefferies, a 23-year-old mistakenly identified as the Kensington Strangler, a serial rapist and killer. His name and photo were posted by an unknown person to a Facebook group devoted to finding the criminal. Within hours, an angry mob had gathered at Jefferies’s house, and he had to call the police for his own protection.25 Anonymous, collectivized action online lends itself to abuses and functions as a high tech lynch mob. Normal mores and checks on action are muted by the deindividuation of
anonymous, unaccountable behavior. In the social arena, these new online groups actively promote bullying, harassment, and real-world threats for offenses against community standards, animal welfare, or just good taste. When applied to the political arena, this power can be even more destabilizing.
Anonymous and Activism 4chan’s shift from cyber-vigilantism to political protest began in January 2008 when Tom Cruise, a popular actor, well known for his devotion to Scientology, appeared in a video meant solely for internal use for the religious group. In the video, which was released on YouTube, Cruise made a number of far-fetched claims about the power of Scientology, including that
Smith, Aaron. “The Internet and Campaign 2010.” Pew Internet and American Life Project. (3/17/11). http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/The-Internet-and-Campaign-2010.aspx 25 Golijan, Rosa. “Man Wrongly Accused of Murder on Facebook Flees Home After an Angry Real World Mob Shows Up” Gizmodo.com. (12/23/10). http://gizmodo.com/5716595/man-wrongly-accused-of-murder-onfacebook-flees-home-after-an-angry-real-world-mob-shows-up
adherents had supernatural powers to cure disease and end drug addiction.26 The video went viral and prompted widespread ridicule of the Church of Scientology. In an attempt to control the damage, the Church of Scientology threatened lawsuits against anyone who posted the video; YouTube removed it, but other websites re-posted the video to keep it accessible.27 The Church’s attempts at censorship kept the video in the news, and it became a subject of conversation on 4chan’s message boards. Many online communities put a strong stigma on attempts at censorship, hailing the rallying cries of internet pioneers Stewart Brand and John Gilmore who respectively declared “Information wants to be free” and “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”28 As a network of pirates, hackers, and heavy internet users, 4chan was not unmoved by the controversy surrounding Scientology’s clampdown. In a message thread, one user wrote. [W]e can do this. We are Anon, and we are interwebs superheroes. Who if not us will take on this abomanation of faith and capitolism? What would JFK say? He would probably say something like ‘Hey Maralyn, its not gonna blow itself.’ But he would probably also want us to do this.29 [sic] The topic snowballed, and the users decided to unite for an operation they titled “Project Chanology.” The formal declaration of war came on January 21 in a YouTube video. A computerized voice intoned, Hello, Leaders of Scientology. We are Anonymous. Over the years, we have been watching you. Your campaigns of misinformation; your suppression of dissent; your litigious nature, all of these things have caught
Barkham, Patrick. “Hackers declare war on Scientologists amid claims of heavy-handed Cruise control.” The Guardian. (2/4/08). http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/feb/04/news 27 Richards, Jonathan. “Web vigilantes attack Scientology website.” The Times. (1/25/08). http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article3250934.ece 28 --. “Boing Boing's Guide to Defeating Censorware.” BoingBoing.com. (2/27/06). http://boingboing.net/censorroute.html 29 Anonymous poster as quoted in Landers, Chris. “Serious Business: Anonymous Takes On Scientology (and Doesn't Afraid of Anything).” Baltimore City Paper. (4/2/08). http://www2.citypaper.com/columns/story.asp? id=15543
our eye. With the leakage of your latest propaganda video into mainstream circulation, the extent of your malign influence over those who have come to trust you as their leaders, has been made clear to us. Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed. For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind, and for our own enjoyment, we shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form. We recognize you as serious opponents, and do not expect our campaign to be completed in a short time. However, you will not prevail forever against the angry masses of the body politic. Your choice of methods, your hypocrisy, and the general artlessness of your organization have sounded its death knell. We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.30 The attack came in the form of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks in an attempt to drive Scientology off the internet. A DDoS attack cripples a website by driving more traffic to it than its servers can handle. The surge of visitors forces the website offline. It is difficult to coordinate enough users to keep visiting a website repeatedly until it crashes, so the protestors distributed a program (the Low Orbit Ion Cannon) that would let your computer keep refreshing the website in the background, without the user having to do anything but boot up the code.31 The cyberattacks drew press coverage, along with the attention of longtime critics of Scientology, who were critical of Anonymous’s approach. Mark Bunker, an anti-Scientology advocate, complained that the tactics were delegitimizing all critics of the Church, and he urged Anonymous to try more traditional forms of protest.32 On February 10, Anonymous organized its first real-world protest. Over 8,000 people demonstrated outside Church of Scientology buildings worldwide.33 Although the total number of protesters was not large, the global scale of
Ibid. Wakefield, Jane. “Anonymous Wikileaks supporters explain web attack.” BBC News. (12/10/10). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11971259 32 Landers, Chris. “Serious Business: Anonymous Takes On Scientology (and Doesn't Afraid of Anything).” Baltimore City Paper. (4/2/08). http://www2.citypaper.com/columns/story.asp?id=15543 33 Ibid.
the protest and the novelty of its internet origins garnered coverage from all around the world.34,35,36 The in-person protests were still touched by 4chan’s Dadaist spirit. Some of the
demonstrators held up signs with slogans like “Honk if you are driving a car” and “Don’t Worry! We’re from the internet.”37 The protestors seemed torn between a commitment to public service and the 4chan ethos of taking action “for the lulz.” While the ironic insincerity of 4chan influenced the tone of the protests, the practices of Scientology shaped the tactics Anonymous employed and set the model for all future actions. The Church of Scientology is infamously litigious, and rumors that church members planned to harass protesters spurred Anonymous members to don masks to remain anonymous at their real-world protests. 38 The initial
confrontation with Scientology strengthened a culture of paranoia and distrust of legal systems that has continued to shape collectivized online protest. Attendance at in-person protests dwindled, but Anonymous was able to abandon inperson protests without losing the media’s attention. The high-profile attack on Scientology had forced media outlets to cover DDoS attacks as a new threat and established them as newsworthy. When Anonymous turned its sights on the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and the MPAA (Motion Pictures Association of America) in protest of their anti-piracy regulations, tech blog Ars Technica titled its story “4chan tries to change life "OUTSIDE the
Shanahan, Leo. “Hackers declare Scientology D-day.” Sydney Morning Herald. (2/7/08). http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/02/07/1202234012004.html 35 Del Signore, John. “Scientology Draws Protesters at NYC Headquarters.” Gothamist. (2/11/08). http://gothamist.com/2008/02/11/nyc_scientology.php 36 Keeling, Brock. “Sunday’s Scientology Protest.” SFist. (2/11/08). http://sfist.com/2008/02/11/scientology_pro_1.php 37 Grigoriadis, Vanessa. “4Chan’s Chaos Theory.” Vanity Fair. (4/11). http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2011/04/4chan-201104 38 Anonymous. “Why Am I Wearing this Mask” (retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/13429996/Anonymousvs-Scientology-Why-Am-I-Wearing-This-Mask-Brochure on 4/18/11)
basement" via DDoS attacks.”39 The DDoS attacks were used precisely because they didn’t require users to leave their computers; their low-cost actions could be aggregated for a big payoff, but the hacker activist (hacktivists) were judged according to the impact of their actions, not their methods. The Ars Technica headline signaled a new respect for the group by
recognizing the attack as engagement. The report concluded, “[D]espite its limited effects, such an attack is a clear protest against the copyright establishment.”40 Nearly every protest carried out online has followed this model. Since 2008, online activists have used DDoS attacks to garner press attention and try to bring governments and companies to heel. They have attacked Sony over an anti-piracy lawsuit, 41 coordinated assaults on Mastercard, PayPal, and Senator Joseph Lieberman as revenge for interference with WikiLeaks website’s ability to receive donations,42 and called for the resignation of Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.43 These attacks are becoming commonplace, but they require more scrutiny before they can be accepted as a legitimate type of political protest.
DDoS as Heckler’s Veto
Anderson, Nate . “4chan tries to change life "OUTSIDE the basement" via DDoS attacks” Ars Technica. (9/20/10). http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2010/09/4chan-tries-to-change-life-outside-the-basement-viaddos-attacks.ars 40 Ibid. 41 Anderson, Nate. “‘Anonymous’ attacks Sony to protest PS3 hacker lawsuit.” Ars Technica. (4/4/11). http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/04/anonymous-attacks-sony-to-protest-ps3-hacker-lawsuit.ars 42 Cohen, Noam. “Web Attackers Find a Cause in WikiLeaks.” The New York Times. (12/9/10) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/10/world/10wiki.html 43 DeGraw, David. “Prepare For Revolution: The Empire State Rebellion Begins on June 14th.” The Public Record.org. (4/7/11). http://pubrecord.org/nation/9224/prepare-revolution-empire-state
Although Anonymous was born out a community of self-proclaimed trolls, members actively planning attacks defend their actions as legitimate protest.44 Barrett Brown a selfproclaimed spokesman for Anonymous defended members’ tactics to MSNBC’s Michael Isikoff. Our people break laws, just like all people break laws. When we break laws, we do it in the service of civil disobedience. We do so ethically. We do it against targets that have asked for it.45 The defense of hacking as civil disobedience has gained traction. The primary tactic used by Anonymous and many other online activists is a DDoS attack on any website run by a company that or individual whom they are targeting. These attacks force a website offline by surging traffic above what its server can handle. Users who try to visit a site taken offline by a DDoS attack will see an error message. Depending on how the company under attack has set up its websites, an attack might bring down only a single site, or all sites hosted on a particular domain might be brought down in the crossfire. A weaker assault may not take the site offline, but will slow it enough to make it nearly unusable. In June 2009, in the wake of the crackdown on Iranian protesters, instructions on how to carry out DDoS attacks were spread on Twitter. The attacks on official Iranian websites were orchestrated to be possible to carry out even by the least tech-savvy internet users. In the simplest formulation, the aspiring cyber-warrior merely opened a specific link which auto-
Grigoriadis, Vanessa. “4Chan’s Chaos Theory.” Vanity Fair. (4/11). http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2011/04/4chan-201104 45 Isikoff, Michael. “Hacker group vows 'cyberwar' on US government, business.” MSNBC. (3/8/11). http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41972190/ns/technology_and_science-security/
refreshed the targets to add to the strain. 46,47 This operation helped to popularize and normalize DDoS attacks. By 2011, coverage of DDoS on cutting-edge tech blogs was neutral to positive. In their coverage of an FBI raid on members of Anonymous who had assisted in DDoS attacks, influential tech blog Ars Technica was openly contemptuous of attempts to criminalize these attacks. The attacks caused no permanent damage, as they simply temporarily overloaded a website with more traffic than the server could handle. They were, for the most part, really nothing more than the cyber equivalent of a campus sit-in.48 The DDoS as sit-in defense has been steadily gaining support, but comparing these two protests only with regard to their disruptive power is deceptive. DDoS attacks may be directed at a website that provides a service like secure money transfers so as to cripple the business of the company but they may be intended simply to destroy their target’s online presence. All DDoS attacks are intended to silence their victims. Their assault has much more in common with a high-tech heckler’s veto than a sit-in. Although sit-ins are also disruptive, and may inhibit a company’s ability to conduct business or the functioning of an administrative office, sit-ins offer greater opportunities for dialogue than may any DDoS attack.
--. “Hactivism in action. Twitter being used to spread DDoS instructions.” ThreatChaos.com. (6/14/09). http://www.threatchaos.com/home-mainmenu-1/16-blog/40
Shachtman, Noah. “Web Attacks Expand in Iran’s Cyber Battle (Updated Again).” Wired. (6/16/09). http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2009/06/web-attacks-expand-in-irans-cyber-battle/
Singel, Ryan. “FBI goes after Anonymous for pro-WikiLeaks DDoS attacks.” Ars Technica. (1/28/11). http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/01/fbi-goes-after-anonymous-for-pro-wikileaks-ddos-attacks.ars
The hackers behind a DDoS attack can be neither confronted and nor negotiated with. Unlike sit-in protesters, or anyone who attends a protest in person, they cannot be identified. It is not uncommon that several hackers or groups of hackers will take credit for taking a site offline. They may all be responsible or none of them may be. A company cannot defend itself to a diffuse, faceless enemy. A DDoS attack also serves its users poorly. A DDoS attack results in a standard website error page in contrast to more complicated hacking attacks that allow protesters to insert their own content on a target’s website.49 As a result, a DDoS attack results in all of the destructive silencing effects of a heckler’s veto without even the benefit of a platform to heckle. The people behind an attack do not create a forum to make a case for themselves as protesters with signs and chants do at a sit-in. A DDoS is content-free unless the people behind it manage to gain additional media attention and time for their explanation. Even if sought out for comment, the anonymizing nature of a DDoS attack shields protesters from ever having to defend their views and tactics. Hidden behind a scrambled IP address, a DDoS organizer is insulated from responsibility. Those who compare the online activities of hacktivists to the sit-ins of the civil rights and antiwar movements forget that these historical acts of civil disobedience carried civil penalties. In the civil rights era, non-violent protesters were arrested and sometimes met with violence. The moral force of their protest came from their willingness to break the law and accept the consequences of that transgression. DDoS participants neither present themselves for arrest nor carry out their attacks in front of police stations, in what could be a parallel to public draft-card burnings. Activists of the new school accept no responsibility, legal or personal.
Estes, Adam Clark. “Anonymous shuts down Westboro Baptist Church site -- during a live interview.” Salon. (2/25/11). http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2011/02/25/westboro_baptist_church_anonymous_website
People participating in a DDoS are shielded from witnessing the consequences of their actions. Protesters at a sit-in are in close physical proximity to the employees of the company that they are protesting. They are forced to witness the effect that their protest has on the people whom they are criticizing. This is a temporizing force, preventing protesters from abstracting away any negative effects of their protests. Absent this check, it is easier to view the target as a monolithic, inhuman enemy. This attitude lessens any perceived costs of an operation and decreases the possibility of negotiation in the future. Anonymous appears to be unaware of the weaknesses of its tactics. Members persist in claiming themselves as the natural next step in civil disobedience. In a press release chastising the British government for arresting people linked to DDoS attacks on PayPal and Mastercard, Anonymous laid out its defense. First and foremost, it is important to realize what a DDoS attack exactly is and what it means in the contemporary political context. As traditional means of protest (peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, the blocking of a crossroads or the picketing of a factory fence) have slowly turned into nothing but an empty, ritualised gesture of discontent over the course of the last century, people have been anxiously searching for new ways to pressure politicians and give voice to public demands in a manner that might actually be able to change things for the better. Anonymous has, for now, found this new way of voicing civil protest in the form of the DDoS, or Distributed Denial of Service, attack. Just as is the case with traditional forms of protest, we block access to our opponents infrastructure to get our message across. Whether or not this infrastructure is located in the real world or in cyberspace, seems completely irrelevant to us. [sic] 50 Anonymous does not argue that DDoS attacks can foster the dialogue through confrontations that characterizes civil disobedience and sit-ins in particular. To Anonymous, activism is justified by its ability to achieve its ends. Thus they argue that their methods of
Anonymous. “5 UK ANONS ARRESTED - ANONYMOUS PRESS RELEASE.” (1/27/11). http://anonnews.org/?p=press&a=item&i=304.
disruption are superior to the ‘empty gestures’ of civil disobedience. DDoS attacks have not spurred any policy shifts to date, so the superior attitude of their defenders may be misplaced. Neglect of persuasion and rhetoric in pursuit of spectacle may be the cause of DDoS’s limited efficacy as advocacy. Whether pushed by Anonymous or repeated by technology news outlets, comparisons of DDoS operations to historical acts of civil disobedience are misguided. These attacks distance protesters from consideration of their tactics, divorce targets from dialogue with their critics, and separate an operation from the rationale behind it. In every facet of its operation, a DDoS attack sunders protest from speech. A digital heckler’s veto, it has a chilling effect on public speech, but offers no new arguments or data to fill the silence. Anonymous’s Allergy to Accountability After the British government arrested five self-declared members of Anonymous the organization released an inflammatory press release. We are Anonymous. It has come to our attention that you deemed it necessary to arrest five of our fellow anons for their participation in the DDoS attacks against PayPal, Mastercard, and others, that have been carried out in our name in retaliation for those organisations’ actions against WikiLeaks… Anonymous believes, however, that pursuing this direction is a sad mistake on your behalf. Not only does it reveal the fact that you do not seem to understand the present-day political and technological reality, we also take this as a serious declaration of war from yourself, the UK government, to us, Anonymous, the people.51 A government enforcing the law is not analogous to a declaration of war against its citizens, even if the law is unjust. Members of Anonymous, like the civilly disobedient activists they claim to emulate, are free to speak out against laws they disapprove of, but they remain
subject to them. Anonymous views itself as outside authority and views government as selfdelegitimizing by virtue of its ignorance of modern technology. Anonymous, itself, claims to be ungoverned. After conducting an interview with a number of self-declared members of Anonymous, The Economist labeled it as a “24-hour Athenian democracy.”52 Members communicate anonymously in chat rooms to coordinate
attacks. Less active members have hooked themselves into botnets, which allow organizers to use their computers remotely to run attacks. During the planning stages, disruptive members can be locked out of chat, and a quorum of about ten users in agreement is required to start mobilizing a botnet. The Economist praised this system and noted that every member, no matter how involved, can exercise a personal veto by disconnecting his or her computer from the swarm, marginally decreasing the impact of an operation.53 Although Anonymous allows a certain level of democracy and dissent, many of its practices are inimical to true discourse. Anonymous places heavy cultural taboos on claiming or disavowing responsibility for operations. When a splinter group, calling itself “Magnanimous” tried to coordinate attacks with Anonymous for only certain targets, the hacktivists lashed out. Members of Anonymous coordinated efforts to DDoS the website used by Magnanimous to plan operations. To add insult to injury, some members of Anonymous hacked and defaced the Twitter feed of a prominent member of Magnanimous, who used the Twitter handle AntiVigilante.54
G., B. “The 24-hour Athenian Democracy.” The Economist. (12/8/10). http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2010/12/more_wikileaks
Ibid. Anderson, Nate. “Chaos as Anonymous attacks toilet paper, Sweden, itself.” Ars Technica. (3/3/11). http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/03/chaos-as-anonymous-attacks-toilet-paper-your-mom-itself.ars
By discouraging splinter groups or any single issue DDoS coordinator, Anonymous makes it impossible ever to deny an attack. As a result, Anonymous can never be accountable for its actions. After crushing the first dissenting groups, Anonymous enforced a strong cultural prohibition on any member of Anonymous disavowing specific actions taken by the group. Anonymous leaders are not opposed to creating splinter sites or front groups for the purpose of baffling law enforcement; moot, 4chan founder, argues that these tactics are necessary to create confusion and render Anonymous’s operations opaque to outsiders.55 Anonymous is waging
war against the people they term ‘moralfags,’ so called because they insist operations are against people who deserve it, as opposed to disruption for the fun of it. Anonymoyus rejects members who are trying to create clarity about the campaigns they countenance. Anonymous’s war against fragmentation is rooted in its own sense of legitimacy. In a press release condemning Magnanimous, members of Anonymous accused the splinter group of misunderstanding their mission: Anonymous cannot participate in joint operations; with anyone. We are everyone. You are a portion of Anonymous. We act as one. Cease using a separate title. The only possible implementation of a different title is in order to take claim for your actions; making you a disgusting little group that requires credit for the actions you take.56 In Anonymous’s value system, identifying yourself publically with some operations and not others is not speech, it is self-aggrandizement. Anonymous is not defined as a political group that uses certain tools to promote a cause; members are united by their means rather than their ends. As a result, they claim that all online activists can and ought to be subsumed in the Anonymous network.
moot (as quoted). “Barrett Brown: Anonymous and Their Alleged Propagandist.” (3/9/11). http://krypt3ia.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/barrett-brown-anonymous-and-their-alleged-propagandist/
Anonymous. “Clarification of Anonymous.” (3/2/11). http://anonnews.org/?p=press&a=item&i=671
Anonymous is not some leftwing sockpuppet to do the bidding of unions and Rachel Maddow. Nor are they all a bunch of Ron Paul loving teapartyfags. Anonymous consists of everything from Anarchists, to Libertarians, to Conservatives, Liberals and anything else on the political spectrum. There were all kinds of people, we even had those who don't count as people (women - looking at you here) being Anonymous.57 If Anonymous truly were an accessible forum for people of every background and creed, then its claim to be able to act legitimately outside established law would be strengthened. Anonymous would, then, be a more valid deliberative democracy than the governments it disdains. But, as the very language of this inclusive declaration demonstrates, Anonymous is a community with a powerful and poisonous culture. Any attempt at negotiating with Magnanimous was paired with destructive attacks. In the style of 4chan, the parent site of Anonymous, retribution quickly became personal. To go after AntiVigilante’s Twitter feed was not necessary if the goal was to squelch his organization. The abuse that was heaped upon him and other dissenters was gratuitous and choked off any chance at a dialogue about the future of DDoS attacks and other online activism. Anonymous disavows any responsibility to outside authority and brooks no deviation from this party line. Its members claim inaccessibility and obfuscation as imperative, despite their total incompatibility with civic virtue. Even within their own network, debates devolve into attacks. Anonymous denies the legitimacy of representative governments and law, while
neglecting to construct any alternative.
Anonymous. “Op Chaotic Neutral.” (2/28/11). http://anonnews.org/?p=press&a=item&i=623
Ideally, a protest action is proportional to the number of people supporting the cause. Marches and rallies tout their turnout numbers as a proxy for their political clout. DDoS attacks and many forms of online protest are much more difficult to link to the number of people behind the operation. The variables that best approximate strength are the binary outcome of whether or not a website is successfully taken down and the length of time it remains down. However, these data do not necessarily correlate strongly with the strength of feeling behind the protest. A DDoS can be stymied by expert network administrators and strengthened servers. As a result, the efficacy of a DDoS attack may be more indicative of the wealth and technical knowhow a target possesses than any surge of online populism. The most powerful companies and governments will be the least vulnerable to any surge of protests. Journalists tend to report on successful attacks rather than give time to all attempted hacks, and do not mention the estimated defensive power of the site under siege. The most tech-savvy firms appear untouched by attempted protests. Even if the success and duration of attack could serve as crude approximations of the strength of the protesters fueling it, a powerful attack may not be the result of a critical mass of protestors. Attacks carried out by Anonymous are powered by a volunteer botnet – thousands of computers across the world whose owners have allowed DDoS organizers to run code remotely. If people don’t volunteer for a mission, any aggrieved hacker could just turn to an unwilling botnet and run the code without the knowledge of the owners of hacked computers. Computer viruses have created giant networks of compromised computers that can be controlled and mobilized for attack. Today, there are dozens of networks that subsume over a
million computers each.58 One botnet based in New Haven, Connecticut successfully controlled over two million computers all over the world for ten years before the criminals managing the system were caught by the FBI.59 Hackers could code their own viruses to co-opt computers, but amateurs can rent time on pre-existing botnets to run attacks. Running an operation that could take out a robust service like Twitter could cost as little as $200.60 Hackers could rent enough computing power to take out a site temporarily (possibly to derail a timed announcement or event) for only $25.61 astroturfing. Because DDoS attacks are divorced from content – a cyber heckler’s veto, if operations cannot be linked to data about the strength of an opposition, they lose any power to inject new information into democratic discourse. If the intention of hackers is to advance policy and change minds, these forms of online activism are intrinsically ill-suited to that cause. They are suitable only for vengeance. When Anonymous focuses its power on government, its actions can be criticized as tactically misguided and needlessly destructive, but there remains a level of respect due to citizens petitioning their government, no matter their methods. There is no analogous claim the members of Anonymous can make on private businesses and private citizens. The websites of private citizens are a tempting target for hactivists, as their defenses against attack are low. Ordinary citizens are at a serious disadvantage when they try to defend themselves against smear
There is no way to distinguish organized volunteers from digital
Schectman, Joel. “Computer Hacking Made Easy.” Business Week. (8/13/09). http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_34/b4144036807250.htm
Markham, Eli. “New Haven FBI seizes botnet.” The Yale Daily News. (4/18/11). http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2011/apr/18/new-haven-fbi-seizes-botnet/ 60 Ibid. 61 Doctorow, Cory. “Have botnet prices crashed?” BoingBoing.com. (6/13/09). http://www.boingboing.net/2009/06/13/have-botnet-prices-c.html#previouspost
campaigns based on untruths or stolen documents. When the considerable power of anonymous activists and botnets are brought to bear on ordinary people without the government’s capacity for self-defense, the results are sobering. Online security firm HBGary Federal began a campaign to unmask ringleaders and ordinary users of Anonymous. This data might have been used in criminal prosecutions for DDoS attacks and other illegal hacking. Anonymous began by conducting DDoS attacks against HBGary’s website. Other members of Anonymous compromised HBGary’s email servers. Data from the emails were used to take down the HBGary security systems, and personal emails were posted online available for download in an effort to humiliate specific HBGary employees.62 Anonymous has carried the ethos of personal vendetta over from its original home on 4chan. After HBGary Federal’s website had been compromised, Anonymous turned its ire on Aaron Barr, HBGary Federal’s CEO. Barr’s Twitter account was compromised and members of Anonymous began posting obscene messages under his handle; “(also I suck cocks and am a sweaty ballsack of caterpillars)” may be taken as a representative example.63 As a final act, an anonymous operative left a taunting message at the HBGary booth at the RSA Security Conference. Concerned that the message might be meant as a threat against HBGary employees present, the company cancelled its talk and abandoned the booth.64
Greenberg, Andy. “HB Execs Run for Cover as Hacking Scandal Escalates.” The Firewall blog at Forbes. (2/15/11). http://blogs.forbes.com/andygreenberg/2011/02/15/hbgary-execs-run-for-cover-as-hacking-scandalescalates/
Twitter feed of aaronbarr as cited in Anderson, Nate. “How one man tracked down Anonymous—and paid a heavy price.” Ars Technica. (2/9/11). http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/02/how-one-security-firmtracked-anonymousand-paid-a-heavy-price.ars 64 Anderson, Nate. “Anonymous vs HB Gary: the aftermath.” Ars Technica. (2/24/11). http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/02/anonymous-vs-hbgary-the-aftermath.ars
The nasty, personal attacks on Aaron Barr during the HBGary attack were not an aberration. Anonymous attacked Sony’s website in April 2011 as retribution for a lawsuit Sony had filed against a hacker who helped users modify Sony’s game consoles. 65 While DDoS attacks were running, Anonymous users began researching the personal lives of Sony executives. Soon, members were sharing the names, ages, and school addresses of the executive’s children. In chat rooms, Anonymous members speculated about the possibility of harassing the children to put pressure on their parents.66 HBGary was devastated despite the presumably formidable defense presented by a security firm that had advance notice of the coming attacks; Sony could defend neither its websites nor the families of its employees. Other businesses and private individuals could not reasonably be expected to withstand a similar assault. The vigilante actions of Anonymous and other civilian cyber-warriors are unpredictable, so individuals can neither defend themselves under fire nor take action to avoid becoming targets in the first place. The unpredictable, punitive actions of online mobs threaten citizens and undermine the function of government. The state, by Max Weber’s definition, is the entity that retains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. The life and livelihood of a citizens should not be endangered by any non-state actor, this power is reserved to the state, which is intended to be accessible and well-disposed to every citizen.67 Online groups like Anonymous usurp this power. Legislators cannot ignore the threat hanging over their constituents, even if there have
Anderson, Nate. “’Anonymous’ attacks Sony to protest PS3 hacker lawsuit.” Ars Technica, (4/4/11). http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/04/anonymous-attacks-sony-to-protest-ps3-hacker-lawsuit.ars 66 Anderson, Nate. “Anonymous goes after Sony, makes it personal... very personal.” Ars Technica. (4/7/11). http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/04/anonymous-goes-after-sony-makes-it-personal-very-personal.ars 67 Weber, Max. The Vocation Lectures. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004.
been only isolated attacks thus far. The government must update the wisdom of Chief Justice John Marshall and realize that the power to hack is the power to destroy.68
Avoid Government Endorsement of these Tactics DDoS attacks and online intimidation-as-activism are not limited to young, anarchic groups like Anonymous. Governments have resorted to cyberwar and hacking attacks as a supplement to conventional warfare or as a separate pressure brought to bear against enemy nations or their own citizens. Before Russian tanks rolled across the Georgian border in the summer of 2008, Georgian governmental websites were brought down by a coordinated DDoS attack.69 Iran’s cyber army has taken down the websites of opposition leaders and successfully hacked and defaced the homepage of the Voice of America News service.70,71 These attacks set a worrying precedent but are less threatening than the choice of governments across the world to embrace crowdsourced, anonymous vengeance to enforce laws or social norms in the style of Anonymous. In 2010, rabbis in Israel declared that halachic law
Marshall, John: “The power to tax is the power destroy” as quoted in McCulloch v. Maryland , 17 U.S. 316 (1819). 69 Markoff, John. “Before the Gunfire, Cyberattacks.” The New York Times. (8/12/08). http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/13/technology/13cyber.html
Rezvaniyeh, Farvartish. “Pulling the Strings of the Net: Iran's Cyber Army.” PBS.org. (2/26/10). http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/02/pulling-the-strings-of-the-net-irans-cyberarmy.html
Anderson, Nate. “Iranian Cyber Army attacks Voice of America website.” Ars Technica. (2/22/11). http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/02/iranian-cyber-army-attacks-voice-of-america-website.ars
forbade Jews from renting or subletting property to non-Jews.72 The 50 signatories of the ruling were municipal rabbis – these rabbis are a part of the city government.73 The rabbis set up a phone number for tips to crowdsource enforcement of their ruling.74 Any report of a Jew renting to an Arab would be investigated, and, if credible, the address, phone number, and business holdings of an offending Jew would be publicized to the masses online to help them take vengeance. India has embraced wholeheartedly the punitive power of online collectives. The New Delhi traffic police opened a new Facebook page in August of 2010 that allowed anyone to upload pictures of people committing traffic violations. 75 Police issued tickets using license plate data if it was visible, but also allowed people to tag photos to identify drivers. A Facebook tag acts as a link to that person’s public profile, which could include address, phone number, and employment data. The tagged photo shows up on the profile of the person tagged, allowing friends and others to see that person was caught breaking the law. A New Jersey police precinct does not rely on citizens to identify lawbreakers; instead, it uses Facebook to share mugshots of people who have been arrested.76 The police frequently
label these photos with the suspect’s full name, alleged crime, and area of residence. Since the police are not trying to glean data from civilian Facebook users, this application of new
Nahshoni, Kobi. “50 municipal rabbis: Don't rent flats to Arabs.” Ynetnews.com. (12/7/10). http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3995724,00.html
Yakobson, Alexander. “Herzl and the Municipal Rabbis.” Haaretz. (12/23/10). http://www.haaretz.com/printedition/opinion/herzl-and-the-municipal-rabbis-1.332363 74 Altman, Yair. “Public invited to inform on those renting to Arabs” Ynetnews.com. (12/12/10). http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3998121,00.html
Timmons, Heather. “In India, Using Facebook to Catch Scofflaw Drivers.” The New York Times. (8/1/10). http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/technology/02traffic.html 76 McCarthy, Caroline. “N.J. town posts DUI photos on Facebook: Tag away?” CNET News. (8/13/10). http://news.cnet.com/8301-13577_3-20013632-36.html
technology is even more disturbing than India’s online reporting. A mistaken Facebook post on a speculative page, even without the imprimatur of the police, was enough to send a mob after an alleged rapist.77 Government use of online groups and crowdsourcing to root out crime serves to legitimate similar activity carried out by independent groups like Anonymous. Only a small fraction of internet users are involved with Anonymous attacks and other, similar operations; therefore, for many people, their first encounter with online mob action could be under the aegis of their local government. Future efforts to regulate online speech or to stigmatize potentially harmful anonymous action could be hampered by these precedents.
Curbing Anonymity Legislative attempts to regulate or limit anonymous speech online have been focused primarily on preventing cyberbullying and harassment.78,79 Although the nasty tactics of 4chan and other message boards and individuals have been a motivating factor behind these new attempts to curtail online anonymity, most reform advocates have been focused on personal, not political, speech. In 2010, California criminalized the use of deceptive online identities in a broad law that allows prosecution of anything from stalking to fraud to brand dilution, as long as
Golijan, Rosa. “Man Wrongly Accused of Murder on Facebook Flees Home After an Angry Real World Mob Shows Up” Gizmodo.com. (12/23/10). http://gizmodo.com/5716595/man-wrongly-accused-of-murder-onfacebook-flees-home-after-an-angry-real-world-mob-shows-up
Keating, Christopher “Bullying Bill Passes Education Committee, Adding Cyberbullying; Modeled On Massachusetts Law; Questions Over Proposed New Dept. Of Early Childhood Education.” Capitol Watch blog at Hartford Courant (3/23/11). http://blogs.courant.com/capitol_watch/2011/03/cyberbullying-bill-passes-educ.html 79 Tyrrell, Joie. “Child safety advocates call for anti-cyberbullying laws.” Newsday. (3/26/10). http://www.newsday.com/long-island/nassau/child-safety-advocates-call-for-anti-cyberbullying-laws-1.1833462
an ID that obfuscates identity is used.80 In Texas, a similar offense became a third degree felony in 2009.81 On the national level, President Obama has supported the Commerce Department’s drive to create a national online ID that would be linked closely to a user’s offline identity.82 Few of these laws have been enforced to date. As is becoming characteristic, the real precedents are being set by private companies, not public representatives. To create an account on Facebook, a new user must register with a first and last name, and the company’s terms of service warn users not to “impersonate any person or entity, or falsely state or otherwise misrepresent yourself.” 83 Users who are caught using
someone else’s identity or using a silly nickname have their accounts deleted. 84 Currently, Facebook has limited power to enforce this rule. It is easy to spot obvious pseudonyms (Sweet Tea Dorminy, Commodore Beauregard, etc), but fraudulent users who choose a plausible first and last name are much harder to catch. Currently, Facebook relies on reports of abuse or fraud from other users to guide its investigations and bannings. Putting the force of government and law behind Facebook’s current regulations might make users less likely to transgress or might spur Facebook to invest more resources into catching rule breakers. Although Facebook manages only sporadic enforcement, the
consequences of its current policy are instructive for any policy maker who intends to strengthen existing limits on anonymity or extend Facebook’s rules to the broader internet.
Shiels, Maggie. “California Looks to Outlaw Online Impersonation.” BBC News. (8/24/10). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11045070 81 Porter, Brian. “State Legislature: Declining economy impacting state budget.” The Colony Courier –Leader. (5/9/09). http://www.colonyleader.com/articles/2009/05/09/the_colony_courier-leader/news/623.txt 82 Hopkins, Curt. “Obama's Internet Plan Sounds an Awful Lot Like a National Internet ID.” ReadWriteWeb.com. (1/10/11). http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/us_commerce_department_in_charge_of_national_inter.php 83 --. “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.” Facebook.com. (last revised 10/4/10, retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/terms.php on 4/6/11). 84 Ingram, Mathew. “Facebook’s No-Pseudonym Policy Is Short-Sighted.” Internet Evolution.com. (11/12/07). http://www.internetevolution.com/author.asp?section_id=539&doc_id=138520
During the Tunisian revolt in January 2011, many demonstrators used Facebook to share information and recruit others to their cause. As traffic to Facebook kept rising, the Tunisian government began running malicious software to steal activists’ Facebook usernames.85 Because users were required to use their real names, the government’s hack put many activists in grave danger. Photo-sharing site Flickr drew activist ire when it began enforcing its rule that pictures can be uploaded only by the person who took them.86 The rule, which until then had seldom been enforced, had a dampening effect on protesters trying to document abuses. Many felt uncomfortable loading pictures to their own accounts (which might be linked to their own name) and preferred to let expatriates take on the risk. The lack of an open anonymous space restricted the free flow of information. Any effort by the United States to track the online activities of its citizens sets a worrying example for more repressive nations like Russia, China, and Iran. As online media grows and pervades more of day-to-day life, censorship online will have serious ramifications for the safety and security of the offline user. Today, many online worlds and virtual assets carry real
monetary value, so curtailing the freedom to communicate in a particular forum can carry a hefty cost for some internet entrepreneurs.87 Online or offline, anonymity carries benefits, as well as risks. In the 1995 Supreme Court decision, McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, which overturned a law that required all campaign material and endorsements to identify their source by name, Justice John Paul Stevens
Madrigal, Alexis. “The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to the Tunisian Hacks.” The Atlantic (1/24/11). http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/01/the-inside-story-of-how-facebook-responded-totunisian-hacks/70044/
Preston, Jennifer. “Ethical Quandary for Social Sites.” The New York Times. (3/27/11). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/28/business/media/28social.html 87 Ludlow, Peter and Wallace, Mark. The Second Life Herald. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007. p. 64.
wrote, “The inherent worth of . . . speech in terms of its capacity for informing the public does not depend upon the identity of its source, whether corporation, association, union, or individual.”88 Anonymity can allow people who have been historically discriminated against to express their opinions without being dismissed due to their race or gender. Any attempt to limit online anonymity would need to be weighed against the benefits it offers to many online users. Ultimately, whether instituted by government or business, anti-anonymity efforts have little chance at restraining determined activists. Many of the simplest and most effective
evasions of online scrutiny have been invented by activists living under repressive regimes, as citizens of liberal democracies have much less to fear from their country’s surveillance. When Libya’s government began snooping on conventional social networking sites, activists used a popular dating website to coordinate revolutionary action.89 Activists received the name of a dummy profile to contact from a confederate, and then exchanged meeting details in the guise of flirtatious notes asking for a date. Rumblings of new laws cracking down on anonymity have spurred hacktivists to create a private currency called Bitcoin to evade tracking and identification.90 Even when popular sites like Facebook force users to unmask, there will always be options for any sufficiently determined user who wants to avoid accountability. The Libyan evasion and many other tricks work by raising the barriers to entry to the anonymous forum. The users rely on a shibboleth to decrease access and lower the profile of the site. As a result, their
Stevens, John Paul as cited in Fish, Stanley. “Anonymity and the Dark Side of the Internet” Opinionator Blog at The New York Times. (1/3/11). http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/03/anonymity-and-the-dark-side-ofthe-internet/ 89 Covert, Adrian. “Dating Site Is the New Hotspot for Libyan Protest.” Danger Room blog at Wired. (3/1/11). http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/03/dating-site-is-the-new-hotspot-for-libyan-protest/ 90 Thompson, Derek. “How to Start Your Own Private Currency.” The Atlantic. (4/5/11). http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/04/how-to-start-your-own-privatecurrency/73327/
actions and discussions become even less transparent and even more selective. Anonymous speech will always be with us, but the more legal barriers are erected against it, the more embattled and paranoid the small communities that hold out will become.
Conclusion Establishing a New Political Tone Politicians have other, non-legislative means to address dangerous, anonymous online speech, but they have bungled almost every attempt. If politicians wish to use the bully pulpit to establish new expectations for online speech, they must be able to speak with authority and command the trust of their audience, but, thus far, they have proved incapable of this feat. The advanced age of most national politicians saps their credibility on modern technological issues; the average age of members of the House of Representatives in the 112th Congress is 56.7 years old, the average age in the Senate is 62.2.91 Instead of making an effort to research and appear engaged with modern technological issues, politicians have floundered. The most notorious gaffe occurred when Senator Ted
Stevens attempted to explain his opposition to a net-neutrality amendment being considered by the Commerce Committee. Stevens incorrectly referred to email as “an internet” as in “My staff sent me an internet” and went on to say, “They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck. It’s a series of tubes.”92
Manning, Jennifer E. “Membership of the 112th Congress: A Profile.” Congressional Research Service. (3/1/11). http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/R41647.pdf 92 Stevens, Ted as quoted in “Your Own Personal Internet.” Wired. 6/30/06. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2006/06/your_own_person/
Newspapers and blogs ridiculed Stevens for his metaphor.93,94,95 Techno remixes of his remarks have been viewed more than four million times on YouTube.96 Web users quickly adopted “the Tubes” as an ironic slang term for the internet. 97 But beneath the humor was an undercurrent of anger. Stevens was the Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation – one of the most powerful politicians in the world when it came to setting internet policy – but he revealed himself to be laughably ignorant. His comments diminished Congress’s authority to regulate online speech or any kind of activity on the internet. The failure of governments to create new laws, or amend old regulations to address new technology, reinforces the idea that lawmakers do not take online communities seriously and do not see these digital realms as subject to traditional political authority. In Canada, an antiquated section of the national Elections Act criminalizes the transmission of election results, while allowing them to be communicated. The distinction means that it is licit for a citizen to share results by phone call to an individual, but any form of mass disclosure, including posting a tweet on Twitter, carries a fine of up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $25,000. 98 The law was intended to keep media outlets from disclosing preliminary election results on the East Coast before polls closed in the West. Rather than make an effort to amend the law, politicians have tossed up their hands and implied there will be no attempt to enforce the 73-year old law in
Doctorow, Cory. “Sen. Stevens' hilariously awful explanation of the Internet.” BoingBoing.com. (7/2/06). http://www.boingboing.net/2006/07/02/sen_stevens_hilariou.html 94 Mitchell, Dan. “Tail Is Wagging the Internet Dog.” The New York Times. (7/8/08). http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/08/business/08online.html 95 Curtis, Alex. “Senator Stevens Speaks on Net Neutrality.” Public Knowledge.org. (6/28/06). http://www.publicknowledge.org/node/497 96 --. “DJ Ted Stevens Techno Remix: ‘A Series of Tubes.’” (Viewing statistics retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtOoQFa5ug on 4/19/11). 97 Munroe, Randall. “Interblag.” xkcd. (11/8/06). http://xkcd.com/181/ 98 Matyszczyk, Chris. “Canadians who tweet election results face jail.” CNET News. (4/23/11). http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-20056688-71.html
upcoming elections.99 The message this incident sends to the public is that politicians do not consider online activities to be particularly consequential or relevant. Politicians usually make high-profile comments on internet policy only as inadvertent gaffes. As a result, when police do attempt to enforce laws concerning the internet, Anonymous can plausibly claim that “pursuing this direction… reveal[s] the fact that you do not seem to understand the present-day political and technological reality.”100 Online protest and anonymous attacks are still a fairly new problem; only a fraction of Americans know they exist, and far fewer have ever participated. It is essential that politicians and others work to shape cultural norms surrounding protest before Anonymous’s tactics gain ground. The plight of the recorded music industry is a cautionary tale that demonstrates how hard it is for governments or industries to change societal norms after a generational shift. In a Harris poll conducted in 2004, over seventy-five percent of teenagers admitted they had downloaded music illegally.101 The lawsuits and public service announcements aimed at curbing piracy among teens had almost no effect; most teenagers believed piracy was too common to be criminal. To achieve a lasting influence, politicians and other public figures need to start questioning the legitimacy of the tactics of groups like Anonymous. Instead of allowing these groups to frame themselves as the heirs of civil disobedience, they should be labeled accurately as mobs who have displayed a taste for cruelty and harassment. DDoS attacks should be treated
Ibid. Anonymous. “5 UK ANONS ARRESTED - ANONYMOUS PRESS RELEASE.” (1/27/11). http://anonnews.org/?p=press&a=item&i=304
McGuire, David. “Report: 'Tweens' Less Likely to Pirate.” The Washington Post. (5/26/04). http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58270-2004May26.html
as analogous to attacks on infrastructure in the real world, and large-scale attacks that command media attention should be condemned publicly as would be a large attack on a power grid or an airport. Identifying Positive Models To condemn broadly online mobilization would be counterproductive. Legislators and leaders would define themselves again as out of touch and ignorant. Any criticism of online speech should be matched with praise for those activities that are not constitutively prone to abuse. The distinction must be made clearly and publicly. The internet can be a powerful force for good, but only if users do not use anonymity to escape feelings of responsibility or if they do not take aggressive, targeted action when anonymous. The popular message board Reddit has succeeded in buying sick and disabled people medical supplies, sending messages of support to a dying girl bullied by her neighbors, and engaging in large scale random acts of kindness, such as throwing a huge birthday party for a lonely veteran.102 Social media can be useful for fundraising or one-time gestures like these, but do-gooders are not limited to the weak-tie, energy-sapping, apolitical actions that Malcolm Gladwell excoriated. The best way to conduct activism online is to make data available and understandable, so that it can influence debate in the public sphere. “I Paid a Bribe” is a crowdsourced database of reported bribes in India. Because offering a bribe is a crime, it is difficult for government officials or watchdogs to track trends and evaluate the effects of new policy. The website allows people to make anonymous reports if they are asked for a bribe, but the data is available only in
--. “Reddit’s Astonishing Altruism.” Voltier.com. (11/12/10). http://voltier.com/2010/11/12/reddits-astonishinaltruism/
aggregate to prevent putting the informant in danger or stirring up retributive violence against the bribe-taker.103 Public data is a powerful weapon for change and people disseminating it are often harassed or repressed by their targets. When activists are pressured, the collaborative nature of internet communities offers safe havens for dissidents and whistleblowers. After WikiLeaks was forced offline, Anonymous coordinated DDoS attacks on Joseph Lieberman, who had pressured the company hosting WikiLeaks, but other online users focused on building new sites to mirror WikiLeaks’s content, so that it remained accessible.104 After only two days, over 300 mirrors registered all over the world with different hosting companies, thus preserving the group’s online presence and data.105 Networked online groups offer ways to escape aggressive censorship. A wiki (a webpage that any internet user can edit) run by Wired magazine tells readers how to stay connected, even if a government shuts down internet service providers as Hosni Mubarak did in Egypt.106 Crowdsourcing and collective action help preserve connections between users and the same online communities can identify where that help is most needed. Google publishes an official Transparency Report that tracks which countries are blocking its services. To get a finegrained sense of censorship, Google funds “Chilling Effects,” a crowdsourced database of efforts to shut down speech online.107 “Chilling Effects” draws on reports from all over the world and is
Jakulin, Aleks. “Bribing Statistics.” Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. (1/3/11). http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2011/01/bribing_statist.html 104 --. “Wikileaks starts mass-mirroring effort.” Slashdot forums. (12/4/10). http://yro.slashdot.org/story/10/12/04/229233/WikiLeaks-Starts-Mass-Mirroring-Effort
Schroeder, Stan. “WikiLeaks Now Has Hundreds of Mirrors.” Mashable.com. (12/6/10). http://mashable.com/2010/12/06/wikileaks-mirrors/ 106 --. “Communicate If Your Government Shuts Off Your Internet.” Wiki run by Wired. http://howto.wired.com/wiki/Communicate_if_Your_Government_Shuts_Off_Your_Internet# 107 Miller, Claire Cain. “Google Reports on Government Requests and Censorship” Bits Blog at The New York Times. (9/21/10). http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/google-reports-on-government-requests-and-censorship/
administrated as a joint project by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and law clinics at several universities.108 While Google’s Transparency Report tracks only assaults on webpages and services, “Chilling Effects” also asks users to report Cease and Desist letters that go after specific content or users while leaving the website intact.109 Online users can act as archivists and defy censorship, but, in addition to preserving and collecting data, online networks also help analyze these data and use the results to galvanize action. In order to make sense of WikiLeaks’s massive cache of diplomatic cables, a website was set up to let internet users annotate the documents. The task is framed as a game; users rack up points for adding tags, but can lose their high standing if their notes are marked as unreliable by other users.110 The Electronic Frontier Foundation has adopted the same tactic to make sense of the reams of documents they receive from the federal government through Freedom of Information Act requests.111 All of these new initiatives use the internet to gather and share data, but the information is always connected to offline actions. These groups avoid the deindividuation effect that emboldens Anonymous and other groups to give themselves over to cruelty. Although data and tactics may be shared anonymously, action does not target private individuals, organizations work within existing law even as they lobby to alter it, and the focus is on maintaining connection, not coordinating retributive attacks. These organizations remain accessible to the public sphere and maintain public faces that can be criticized and questioned. Unless
--. Chilling Effect homepage. (retrieved from http://www.chillingeffects.org/ on 4/21/11). Ibid. 110 Machkovech, Sam. “Wikileaks: A Tale of Two Games.” The Atlantic. (12/20/10). http://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2010/12/wikileaks-a-tale-of-two-video-games/68321/ 111 Lynch, Jennifer. “EFF Seeks Cooperating FOIA Reviewers.” Electronic Frontier Foundation website. (3/15/11). https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/03/eff-seeks-cooperating-foia-reviewers
anonymous internet forums construct expectations of accountability and authority, they are safe only insofar as they remain tethered to the real world. New Structures of Accountability Some online communities are experimenting with new systems of governance that could promote accountability while preserving anonymity, but the results have been mixed. The Sims Online, an online role-playing community, tried to establish a reputational economy. Every player could be given demerits for breaking in-game rules at any time by any other player. This chastisement took the form of a red tag attached to a player profile, publicly visible to any other gamer. The administrators of the game assumed that identifying abusive players would help all other users avoid them. If a player kept accumulating red tags, the moderators would impose additional disciplinary action.112 When the rule went into effect, it ended up causing an entirely new type of in-game crimes. Players formed mob-like protection rackets and committed extortion. They would mob a solitary player and threaten to red tag him en masse unless he paid them to go away.113 No
online game has since succeeded in setting up a stable reputational economy that would allow users to police each other. The insulation from personal responsibility keeps inducing internet users to join up into mobs, whether in the form of impersonal herds bent on revenge like 4chan members or in the form of crime syndicates using rules to enable abuse. League of Legends, an online sword and sorcery game with several million active players, is pioneering a new approach to online accountability. The creators of the game are trying to set up an in-game tribunal system that would be run by players and could police in112 113
Ludlow, Peter and Wallace, Mark. The Second Life Herald. p. 51. Ibid, p. 90
Tribunal judges will be chosen from the ranks of long time players with
unblemished records. Any judge will be offered the opportunity to rule on a random subset of pending cases. To prevent corruption, tribunal judges will not know the identities of any other judge; they can consider only the available facts with no additional communication. Like the WikiLeaks annotators, accuracy is rewarded with in-game points and rewards. To assure fair verdicts, judges are told to vote for the verdict that they believe the majority of the tribunal will select, instead of simply voting their conscience. They receive points if their prediction of the verdict turns out to be correct.114 League of Legends announced the proposed tribunal system in January 2011, and it is still in the process of being rolled out, so it is too early to judge whether it will be effective. Innovations like these tribunals with their carefully chosen incentives and checks offer hope that online communities will be able to build up cultural norms of accountability and institutions to enforce those mores. Until they succeed in policing themselves, online communities are too prone to untrammeled nastiness to establish themselves as political actors. The energies of their members are best channeled through organizations that are rooted in existing political structures and are participants in forums open to the public. Opportunities to redirect the efforts of online
reformers are few, as these communities cannot be curbed though legislative action, without impinging on legitimate speech, and legislators cannot use the bully pulpit to spur cultural shifts until elected representatives prove they are competent to comment on internet policy.
Totilo, Stephen. “A New And Maybe Better Way To Stop People From Being Jerks Online.” Kotaku. (1/14/11). http://kotaku.com/#!5733426/a-new-and-maybe-better-way-to-stop-people-from-being-jerks-online
Online communities need political philosophers to remind them of their responsibilities to the public square and their fellow citizens. The internet can serve as a laboratory for ideas, a giant indexed database, and a facilitator of low-cost, low stakes activism (donations, email campaigns, etc), but it ought not engage in high impact actions until members of these groups, like their victims, are subject to the consequences of their actions in the real world.
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