Anonymous: Hacktivist Collective
How the loose-knit hacktivist collective Anonymous made the activists’ dream of electronic civil disobedience a reality.
Illustration By Anonymous © Creative Commons
“As far as power is concerned, the streets are dead capital!” proclaimed the activist art collective Critical Art Ensemble in 1996. With the internet age dawning, the group urged activists to go digital. Civil disobedience on the street, they argued, was symbolic but ineffective. Money and power were no longer bound to city centers—or any physical location.
History of Anonymous
Through Anonymous, the world has finally seen this vision for a new activism materialize, though it was not the activists’ creation. To the contrary, Anonymous was created deep inside the internet, in an imageboard forum known as 4chan. On 4chan’s /b/ board, reserved for random topics, computer buffs would entertain one another with shocking, politically incorrect creations.
They also coordinated to hijack or disable websites, often through distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Sinister as that may sound, these attacks amount to little more than an intentional traffic jam on a web server, rendering the site temporarily useless. Such acts weren’t malicious, but through a variety of coordinated pranks, /b/ users developed the practices that would come to define Anonymous. So when the Church of Scientology attempted to end the mockery of a certain Tom Cruise Scientology video, they retaliated online and in the streets, to expose what they viewed as the Church’s history of illegal acts and human rights violations.
Anonymous: Electronic Civil Disobedience
With this, the nascent Anonymous set foot in that place where hacking and activism overlap. They didn’t leap in wholeheartedly, nor did they draw back. In 2009, the collective set its sights on defending a file sharing site known as The Pirate Bay. After DDoS attacks on the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the group released a statement reading, “We will continue to attack those who embrace censorship.” True to its word, defense of the free exchange of information remained a high priority. When MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal blocked payments to WikiLeaks in 2010, Anonymous targeted those websites. Then, when Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali blocked access to WikiLeaks, members of Anonymous planned attacks on Tunisian government and stock exchange websites. They also helped Tunisians find ways to communicate online, working around government restrictions and surveillance. With each operation, more explicitly activist hackers joined the ranks of Anonymous. By the end of OpTunisia in early 2011, the group’s reputation as an influential, if loosely organized, hacktivist collective was solidified.