Operation Payback and the Eroding Image of Anonymity
Anonymous has recently been conducting what they call an "Operation Payback", a series of DDOS, defacement and other attacks at web sites of anti-piracy organizations including some content industry organizations such as MPAA and RIAA.
Three of such attacks have been conducted just in the last week including DDOS and defacement of MPAA's CopyProtected.com which promotes DRM (Digital Rights Management) technology on DVDs and Blu-ray, DDOS on UK's Intellectual Property Office web site, and the latest, a DDOS attack and defacement of Portuguese Movie Rental Outfit ACAPOR.
In this latest attack Anonymous obtained a copy of a 640MB email database from ACAPOR and posted it on Pirate Bay for everyone to download.
Anonymous sometimes leaves a text that reads like a manifesto of a revolution. It proclaims that "the individual has become free, in the most extreme anarchistic sense, to share ideas", while autocratic rulers try to crush this freedom. "In spite of censorship in the form of copyright law and other restrictions, the people have succeeded in distributing content to the poor, the underprivileged and the oppressed", the Anonymous text says. They believe piracy "democratizes knowledge and makes education affordable".
They also address the typical complaint of anti-piracy organizations, that piracy is theft and that it starves artists, by pointing out that the majority of revenue is kept by the major record labels. To justify their attacks they say that the anti-piracy organizations are forcing their hand by ignoring the voice of the people.
Considering that their attacks aim at the anti-piracy organizations and promote The Pirate Bay it is easy to consider Anonymous as a cyber-warfare front of the larger Pirate movement that has sprung up in recent years, helped significantly by the formation of political Pirate Parties in a number of countries.
But who or what is Anonymous? It is not an easy thing to define since it is not really a cohesive group, does not have a centralized authority of any kind and has no particular structure to it. It is more like a internet meme than a real organization. An act is considered to be done by the Anonymous whenever the actor attributes the act to "Anonymous".
Yet at the same time it isn't quite correct to say that Anonymous represents anyone who acts anonymously either. There is a difference between someone simply saying something anonymously and someone saying something anonymously in the name of what appears to be a larger group called "Anonymous".
Unfortunately, not everyone might care for such a distinction, in the least those who find themselves at the receiving end of the Operation Payback. As far as they are concerned Anonymous represents anonymity on the Internet and the aggressive actions of the Anonymous represent the danger of Internet anonymity.
In a world in which there's an increasing rhetoric about cyber security and the dangers of cyber terrorism this may be a worrying development for anyone who values anonymity for reasons other than the ability to cause havoc without impunity.
This brings us to the key question that some are already asking, and making up their minds about. Is the Operation Payback really doing any good to the overall cause of freedom or is it simply providing those who wish to limit it for their own power and profit with an excuse to clamp down, any way they can, on Internet anonymity and privacy, in the name of this newly developing war on cyber-terrorism?
It may also be worth asking what exactly moral philosophy is guiding the Operation Payback? The name itself suggests simple vengeance, a tit for tat. Poetically this may sound just, and I would be the last one to argue against the fact that the enemy here are akin to criminal gangs allowed to use the corrupt legal system to roam around and abuse people at will, but does this make it any less of a crime? Does one steal because he was stolen from or kill because his was killed? Is the best response to crime truly to do crime yourself?
Or is it to set a better example, a different way, a more powerful way, one they can't use against you, one they wont know how to deal with? It was already quite clear that the piracy movement cannot be stopped, that the IP laws are broken and in need of fixing and that no amount of policing will ultimately be able to stop illegal file sharing. For all intents and purposes the pirates are already winning. Doesn't this make the Operation Payback kind of unnecessary or even harmful?
This might be somewhat outrageous to suggest, but it is worth noting the fact that anonymous can easily be anonymous to both sides of the conflict. What guarantee is there that the Operation Payback doesn't involve some people who would like to deface the very image of anonymity in order to justify killing it? Isn't there a possibility that the Anonymous can be hijacked by those who wish to portray anonymity as a dangerous thing to have?
If so, how can we fix the eroding image of anonymity? How can we emphasize the good things brought about by anonymity? What of value would we lose if we lose the choice to stay anonymous?
What do you think?