The other day I finally had the pleasure of hearing professor Biella Coleman speak in person about the meme that stands for the extremely loose non-collective of hackers and collaborators we call Anonymous. Coleman asked the audience if it’s actually useful for us to frame Anonymous and “hacktivism” as elements of “geek culture.” Respectfully, my answer is that it depends on the crowd, and what your aim is in explaining the phenomenon–because depending on who you’re talking to, there’s a good chance they see this “hacktivism” stuff as either a nebulous threat, or a novelty worth a chuckle or two–probably a bit of both.
Observing groups through a techno-sociologist’s focus on cultural particularities helps cut through the romanticizing and pervasive media-driven generalizations of hacking we see repeated over and over; but focusing on niche and notions of punk and geek can take focus off the fact that we may be witnessing the development of a new iteration on the philosophy and infrastructure of protest. I’m not arguing that DDoSing is smart long-term strategy or that these activities don’t represent a breakdown of civic society; but wait…couldn’t we say that evolving breakdowns are part of a process that allows governments and assorted contingencies to see with new eyes? Point us towards new models for civic engagement?
Perhaps you’ve heard of Anonymous’ declaration of war on the government of Iran on April 29th. It’s actually the second iteration of #OpIran. The first #OpIran took place in mid February, in the wake of events in Tunisia and Egypt. My time spent observing the #Op yielded two big surprises: First, #OpIran was about much more than DDoS attacks: a concrete part of the mission was about getting through to activists with “white fax care-packages” in Tehran and teaching them to set up proxy networks. Second, this was not the crazy, anarchic free-for-all the media likes to paint all Anonymous-allied hacking sprees to be: participating members adhered to a procedurally generated code of ethics laid out in the “Anonymous-the uber-secret handbook, compiled by Anonymii, version 0.1.3, date 15.02.11″…with one great exception: Anonymous, a self-described proponent of the right to freedom of speech, often underlines that it does not attack media organizations; yet when #OpIran members agreed to participate in the take-down of the site of the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA.ir), I witnessed the real-time revision of this code.
(From Anonymous-the Uber-Secret Handbook):
Q:Why not attack that newspaper/TV/Radiostation?
A:Anonymous does not attack media.
Q:That is no media! It only spreads lies and propaganda! A:Freedom of speech counts for assholes too3
I’d like to point out that the proposition to go after irna.ir was widely contested amongst the IRC members. The debate showed members to have a prevailing respect for organizational structure and consensual “Hive Mind”. Proponents of defacement of the site argued that “yah irib is not “media”, “its only news station for idiots like ahmadinejad” and “OUR TARGETING medias is against Anonymous rules, but is in respond to Islamic Regime sending parazit to the whole Hotbird satellite, and DDoSing opposition medias, Such as Kaleme and Balatarin.” The decision to deface was predicated on the notion that Iran’s state-sponsored media in no way serves the interests of its’ citizens…and perhaps that all is fair in love and escalating script-based spats with regime-backed “media.”
In an interview with Luke Allnutt of Radio Free Europe, veteran Hacker Oxblood Ruffin traces what he sees as the precedent for hacktivist attacks on media sites to former U.N. Human Rights Officer Jamie F. Metzl’s proposal in 1997 that the abuses of state-run media necessitate more active intervention, pointing to the role radio played in Rwanda:
“Announcers on the Hutu extremist-controlled Radio-Televisions Libre des Milles Collines helped organize the militias and goaded the young killers, reading lists of enemies to be hunted down and butchered. Recognizing that these broadcasts were whipping Rwanda into a killing frenzy, the U.N. military commander in Kigali, General Romeo Dallaire, a few international human rights organizations, and several U.S. senators called for them to be jammed, but nothing was done. Instead, the small U.N. military contingent was drastically reduced, and the world stood by as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered.”
Allnutt asks Oxblood if he sees DDoS attacks as a form of civil disobedience, to which he replies “It’s like a cat burglar comparing himself to Rosa Parks. Implicit in the notion of civil disobedience is a willful violation of the law; deliberate arrest; and having one’s day in court. There is none of that in DDoSing.” Oxblood’s answer makes me wonder what he thinks of the 40+ DDoS participants visited by federal authorities or arrested in the U.S and Britain since last December, as his verdict would imply that the participants would not engage in these activities had they felt arrest was imminent. A true back-of-the-bus test of participants’ bravery/bravado for Oxblood’s rather traditional notion of civil disobedience may never present itself, thanks to DDoS participants’ ever-evolving tactics for evasion.
Could Anonymii have found inspiration in a U.N worker’s proposal? It would certainly put a kink in the presumption that “hacktivism” is radically new…or perhaps the neat way this state-backed proposal fits into the narrative of hacktivism points to the possibility that proponents of action, whether they’re acting as states or anarchic subsets of Internet subcultures, share a greater commonality than they’re wont to admit. Either way, we’ll probably understand what’s happening better if we’re less dismissive of the “script kiddies.”
Note: I’m aware that I have not addressed the recent reports of “civil war” between Anonymii factions; or how the attack on IRNA compares to LulSec’s attack on PBS; these developments require unpacking.
For logs from the IRC, see my longer piece done for Clay Shirky’s Social Facts class at ITP back in February.