Monday, February 28, 2011

Speaking out against Anonymous and Internet vigilantism [updated]

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NOTE: (03/01/11 4:00 AM) – Speaking with a friend has alerted me to the fact that I make some unfounded generalizations in this post. Rather than revise the entire thing, I’ll leave this little “foreword”: I realize that “Anonymous”, as an online collective, is an extremely vague group that just about anybody can claim to be a part of, and that most likely only a tiny faction of Anonymous are actual black-hatters or “hacktivists”. I am also aware that factions of Anonymous have presented perfectly legal means of protesting, such as encouraging people to simply abandon PayPal, or to disseminate the Cablegate documents as far and wide as they could through legit methods, and others of the sort. The reasons I don’t mention these decent and honorable initiatives in the below post are A) I had honestly forgotten about them (I’ve paid only minimal attention to Anonymous’s activities), and B) my point was to argue against online vigilantism (of which factions of Anonymous now play a large role), not to present some sort of exposé on Anonymous’s history.

“We Are Anonymous”

They’re one of the latest trending issues these days, it seems (or, at least, one of the rare ones that actually matter). First rising to prominence in the midst of the US Government’s crackdown on WikiLeaks and the debut of “Cablegate”, and retaining a certain (and apparently increasing) media and online notoriety thanks to both their mystery and their power, the Internet group known as Anonymous has become a beacon of inspiration for many who are passionate in their opposition to Big Brother and entities that are generally perceived (especially by the Left) as being detrimental to socio-politics, in the US and internationally. From crashing credit card websites to their recent and thorough trashing of Internet security firm HBGary (and one agent specifically), this stringy collective of black-hat hackers has mounted a sudden, vigorous and dangerous resistance to anyone they decide is an enemy of the general population, in the best interests of whom they claim to act.

In other words, they are no more than common vigilantes gone digital. Self-righteous thugs who hide behind the Internet’s cloak of anonymity.

I may very well receive some level of flak for calling them such mean names, but the fact is that their own actions have revealed their own galling hypocrisy. They claim to espouse and defend free speech, yet they attack groups and people who say things they don’t like. They claim to keep people accountable, yet they’re the ones smashing perfectly legit websites for choosing to take what they believed was the best and safest (and entirely legal) course of action in severing ties with WikiLeaks, given the threats they were facing from the US Government*. They claim to espouse common morality, yet they blithely go on a rampage against people who try to stop them from committing any more crimes, to the point where they may even be endangering their safety by posting their most sensitive personal information online for any assholes to see.

This is not how reasonable and rational people fight against governmental or private attacks. This is not how reasonable and rational people respond to anything. This is how egotistical assholes with too much time on their hands behave. No-one who does these things speaks for me, nor (I like to believe) any other fair-minded folks. Normal people do not support such pugilistic and criminal acts against our ideological opponents, no matter how big a bunch of douchebags we may think they are.

At the very least, I refuse to be represented by people who think the best way to strike back against the government’s cowardly attacks against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, and various private entities’ choice to pull back to save their own necks, is by … taking down a few random websites for a few hours.


This is what’s being hailed as today’s bulwark against Big Brother? Stuff that looks like it was thought up by some thirteen-year-old delinquent? Now, I’ll admit that taking down such large websites is an impressive technical feat, but if you’re going to pretend to fight for the common people and freedom in general, you could at least try and do something constructive towards your goals. Somehow, creating damage that amounts to giving a bunch of IT techs a headache for a few days hardly seems like a worthy effort.

Given Anonymous’s track record, I’m left with only two possible conclusions: Either they’re a bunch of loosely affiliated cyber-criminals who do as they please under a mantle of helping to uphold justice and liberty, or they’re a bunch of loosely affiliated cyber-criminals who do as they please under a mantle of stirring up shitstorms for their own mere amusement. Either way, I don’t see any reason why they would merit anyone’s respect. Not until they start living up to the principles they claim to fight for.

Case in point: Just earlier this evening, I was tweeted the following, in response to my negative reaction to Anonymous’s recent (purported) attack against a Koch brothers website:

Tweet by Immigration,Politics (@24AheadDotCom) to Joé McKen (@joemcken): “@joemcken: you're the first self-described liberal I've seen to oppose criminal attacks on #Koch. A true rarity. #p2 #tlot #TopProg #tcot” | Twitter

I don’t know whether that speaks more about this person’s (of whom I know nothing) potential biases, or about how liberals are just as likely to sink into cheering on deplorable acts committed against their chosen enemies as is anyone else, including those conservatives we so love to rhetorically swing at. It’s just human … and it’s also wrong.

In summary: Yes, the US Government was wrong (though entirely expected) to persecute WikiLeaks. Yes, financial groups were wrong to cut their support to WikiLeaks. Yes, firms like HBGary were wrong to draw up secret plans to try and take WikiLeaks out. Yes, Aaron Barr was wrong to openly brag about his plan to uncover actual members of Anonymous (especially given how he, more than most other people, was in an ideal place to appreciate the awesome dirt-digging powers of the Internet). And yes, entities like the Koch brothers and assorted others are wrong in supporting causes that, knowingly or not, end up poisoning the socio-political landscape. All of these actions are wrong and those behind them deserve all sorts of scathing blowback.

But fighting immoral and reprehensible acts with more immoral and reprehensible acts is just fucking stupid. It gets nobody anywhere, and like monkeys flinging feces, all it accomplishes is covering the battleground in a stinky and toxic mess that harms everyone, right or wrong. This isn’t idealism talking; it’s fucking common sense.

In closing, I’ll make this as plain and clear as I can: I am fundamentally opposed to resorting to cheap tricks and petty vandalism to try and crush one’s enemies. And anyone who supports said cheap tricks and petty vandalism is a goddamned hypocrite and an asshole. Fuck vigilantism, fuck wrongful hacking, and until they drop their double standards, fuck Anonymous.

Petulant, self-serving pseudo-rant over.

* I do believe that these were cowardly actions, of course. But I support these companies’ rights to do so, as should anyone else who actually does give a damn about freedom of choice and association.

Edit (02/07/12 5:27 PM ET) – Fixed broken footnote link.