This article is the first in a two-part series tracing the development of the amorphous online community known as Anonymous, pranksters who have become a force in global affairs.
Late in the afternoon of Jan. 19, the U.S. Department of Justice website vanished from the Internet. Anyone attempting to visit it to report a crime or submit a complaint received a message saying the site was unable to load. More websites disappeared in rapid succession. The Recording Industry Association of America. The Motion Picture Association of America. Universal Music. Warner Brothers. The FBI.
By nightfall, most of the sites had come back online, but the people responsible for the outages had made their point. They’d landed what they hailed as the biggest blow yet in an escalating war for control of the Internet, and in one of their online command centers, “Phoenix” and his associates were celebrating.
Phoenix, a college student, is a member of Anonymous, the loose coalition of hackers, pranksters and other creatures of the Internet who have made headlines over the last 13 months for attacks on the computer systems of a wide range of targets: MasterCard, Visa and PayPal; the San Francisco public transit system; a Texas think tank; Sony; a host of computer-security companies; authoritarian governments in Tunisia and Egypt.
Phoenix wouldn’t call himself a “member,” of course. Much like Occupy Wall Street, a movement with which it has many ties, Anonymous technically has no official membership, hierarchy or specific agenda. Some “anons” do wield more influence than others and the resulting resentments have led to bitter internecine feuds, but its overall lack of an official power structure is essential to its identity and perhaps its survival. As Anonymous put it in a taunting statement to NATO, another recent object of its unfriendly attentions, “You can’t cut off the head of a headless snake.”
The snake seems to have a certain sense of direction, however, as the Jan. 19 attacks suggested. The inciting incident took place earlier that day in the hills outside Auckland, New Zealand, when local police landed two helicopters on the lawn of a man who calls himself Kim Dotcom and owns Megaupload, a hugely popular online service that enables people to share and store movies and other media for free.
Authorities shut down the site and arrested Dotcom and six colleagues, accusing them in a 72-page indictment of engaging in acts of “massive worldwide online piracy” that inflicted $500 million in damages on copyright holders while bringing in more than $175 million in profits.
The news spread quickly. A message went out on Anonymous Twitter accounts exhorting people to attack the Justice Department and several piracy-fighting trade groups. By clicking on a link, they could launch a page that asked them to identify a target. Thousands typed in the address of the Justice Department site and clicked enter, bombarding it with a fusillade of meaningless commands. Overwhelmed, the site froze and dropped offline.
In the chat network where Anonymous coordinated the attacks, the virtual warriors declared victory with a military phrase: “TANGO DOWN.”
Part war, part game. Given the culture of the Internet, it’s reasonable to assume that many of those who responded to Anonymous’ call were teenagers. The software used to fire these Internet missiles was the Low Orbit Ion Cannon, a name lifted from the video game “Command & Conquer.” Yet the consequences of firing it were real — a major law enforcement agency’s web site was temporarily crippled, leaving the agency to observe that there had been a “degradation in service.”
Last year, 14 anons were arrested in the United States for using the Ion Cannon to attack PayPal. Some now face the possibility of 15-year prison sentences.
Phoenix wasn’t around when the Jan. 19 attack went down, but later that night, I found him in an Anonymous chat room and asked him to explain the motivations behind it.
“You’ve heard Anons say before that this is a war,” he said. “A full scale information war. That’s not mere propaganda, many regard that as a perfectly accurate description. And the stake at play is, simply, ‘Who will control access to information? Everyone or a small subset?’”
In case it wasn’t clear, he then labeled that subset: “The government.”
This struggle for control of the Internet goes back years, but it reached a crescendo just the day before the attack on the Justice Department, when Wikipedia went dark in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, the controversial anti-piracy bills that were working their way through Congress. Google collected 4.5 million signatures on a petition against the bills. Mozilla redirected traffic from its sites. And thousands of other protesters, from Tumblr and WordPress to Some Guy with a Blog, blacked out their sites, took to the streets and posted messages opposing the legislation, saying it would hurt their business and amounted to censorship.
Across the battle lines stood film studios, music labels, pharmaceutical companies and other businesses intent on defending their copyrighted property from illegal sharing at a time when the Internet has made it possible for, say, a digital copy of “V For Vendetta” — an anon fave and the source of their iconic grinning Guy Fawkes masks — to travel from an iPad in the United States to a piracy site in Brazil to another viewer’s laptop in Korea.
These companies have faced a tricky problem: How do you sue a piracy site when it’s based in another country, especially one with looser intellectual-property laws? The bills’ answer: You don’t. You go after their enablers — websites that drive traffic to the piracy sites by posting links to them, even if they only do so inadvertently. Critics argued that the cost of getting rid of these links would drive smaller sites out of business.
Two days after the protests, in the face of public outrage and lobbying efforts from the tech sector, Congress shelved SOPA indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean the war is over. As one Anonymous tweet warned about SOPA: “It can be brought back anytime. The bill must be KILLED.”
Like the web companies involved in the protests, anons tend to argue that anti-piracy legislation could send the Internet down an ever-tightening spiral of government control. Many anons go further, portraying such bills as deliberate assaults on the right to free speech. They say they oppose anti-piracy efforts on idealistic grounds, not that they don’t enjoy a bit of pirated entertainment from time to time. In general, obeying the law isn’t their priority. “The Internet is the Wild West,” Phoenix said on the night of the attacks, “and Anonymous will fight against any attempt to tame it.”
That conversation with Phoenix was not my first. All of our communications took place online, mostly in the networks of chat rooms where anons plan their attacks, and I had come to think of him a messenger from the Internet underworld: He had one foot in the world of “hax0rs” — hacker-speak for hackers — and one in the world of capital letters and correct spelling.
He was like a hacker Hermes, moving freely between the realms of the living and the dead, except that in this case the realm of the dead was a dominion of cyberspace in which the dead possessed an unusual degree of expertise in massively multiplayer online video games and porn.
Altogether, I spoke with more than 30 anons, and in some respects, their attitudes couldn’t have been more different, but one thing seemed to hold them together. They saw the Internet as their homeland, their home. Among them were Phoenix, Xyzzy and Gregg Housh. Together, their stories roughly trace the rise of Anonymous and the battles leading up to what Phoenix calls the war……..
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Courtesy of Saki Knafo of the Huffington Post