With Prof. Gabriella Coleman, Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy

The Reporter speaks to Gabriella Coleman, McGill’s Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy, in the Dept. of Art History & Communication Studies and a leading authority on the anthropology of digital media, hackers and the law, about the “hacktivists” known as Anonymous and their various activities.
Prof. Gabriella Coleman

Anonymous: boss of the Internet?

By Neale McDevitt

On January 19, the U.S. Department of Justice shut down MegaUpload, a popular file-sharing website, and indicted several people with a host of charges including conspiracy to commit racketeering and copyright infringement. The following day, chaos reigned on the Internet, with a number of large government and entertainment websites crippled through concerted distributed denial-of-service, or DDoS, an attack in which a targeted web server is flooded to the point of crashing. The Department of Justice, the FBI, Universal Music, the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America were just some of the organizations that saw their websites crash and go offline.

The perpetrators? A well-known, high-profile group of “hacktivists” known as Anonymous, or simply Anon. Originating in 2003, on a message board called 4chan as a group of mischief-making hackers, Anon became more political with a widely publicized protest against the Church of Scientology in 2008. Since then, the group has morphed into a collaborative, international entity that has played significant roles in the toppling of governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

In an effort to better understand Anonymous and its various activities, The Reporter spoke with Gabriella Coleman, McGill’s Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy, in the Dept. of Art History & Communication Studies. Newly arrived from New York University, Coleman is a leading authority on the anthropology of digital media, hackers and the law.

Were you surprised by the extent of Anon’s activity last week?

There had been a definite lull in their activities of late and then, just like that, they took down more websites than ever before. I always said it was possible, but I didn’t know to what extent. The FBI, the Dept. of Justice, Universal Music – they really made people take notice.

 How do they plan and carry out these operations?

Anonymous is made up of different nodes, often unrelated to one another. A node will decide a course of action, usually through consensus, and then they publicize it. They go to message boards and start a thread and say “everyone come to such and such channel” and start tweeting it and someone will make a video and posters.

 They rally people to join in?

That’s right. There’s this smaller group of Anons who are always there, and then there are thousands of people who come to the shores at the right moment. Anon will provide this “infantry” with the technological tools and the structure to help with the DDoSing. But they can’t control whether these hordes of these so-called Internet geeks are willing to jump on board.

They can still take down a lot of sites without these people, but there is something quite dramatic about having 2,000, 3,000 and 4,000 people on one Internet relay chat channel and then the mega-thousands of people on Twitter also providing support. It provides a sense of critical mass.

What impact do they have?

They have a certain type of power to convey messages – which has a significant impact, especially with things like SOPA [Stop Online Piracy Act is a United States bill to expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods.] President Obama didn’t sign it in part due in large part to public outcry, so they do have some influence there.

I don’t think they can influence policy in other domains – they just don’t have the critical mass. But when it comes to Internet legislation they have the ability to change the course of policy by being able to broadcast so loudly people’s dissatisfaction with certain proposed laws.

 So are they Robin Hoods or cyber-terrorists?

Because they have no consistent philosophy, it is equally hard to come out in full support of their activities or to condemn them outright. They cause a huge mess for some corporations and some of their political manifestations are extremely dicey.

They frighten a lot of people and there have been a lot of arrests. They are a concern for authorities because if their actions had just been those of totally crazy hacks, it would be easier to paint them as raving lunatics. But it is difficult to pigeonhole them into a terrorism slot or just as crazy anarchists – that makes the public relations battle very difficult for government authorities. Remember, they played a significant role in events like the Arab Spring.

 Tell us about the Arab Spring involvement.

This was a huge shift for Anon because so many of their operations have related to Internet censorship issues. With the Arab Spring, they were entering a different territory.

But in some ways it was typical of Anon because it happened as a result of some sort of accidental convergence. While, no doubt, there were some individuals who were quite moved by what was happening in Tunisia, it was when WikiLeaks was blocked there that – boom – Anon came in.

They came in at the very moment that dramatic events were happening in Tunisia and, with the exception of Al Jazeera, nobody was really reporting on it. And that too, they felt, was a form of censorship. That really riled them up.

What role did they play?

They did everything from helping activists get videos out of Tunisia, to providing them with security tools. There was a script that the Ben Ali regime used to fish passwords of activists and Anon came up with a counterscript to stop that.

They were obviously inspired by the events and started what they called the Operation Freedom in Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Lybia, etc.

 Some people call them the ‘boss of the Internet.’ Is that accurate?

Currently they have a lot of say. They have the ability to really send a powerful message in a very short period of time by exploiting the media and they are very savvy.

In the end, the final boss of the Internet will be the people who will come and support or protest certain actions that are going to affect the Internet. But nobody has the ability to rally people quite like Anon.

 What does the future hold for Anonymous?

It is difficult to predict. A lot of groups that have stuck around now have order and governance – the sorts of things that Anon doesn’t embrace. It will be interesting to see if they stick around or if they will just dissipate. They are an entity that thrives off spectacle and it becomes increasingly difficult to top yourself.

My feeling is that they won’t be here in 10 years but they will have had this amazing run. Perhaps they will be replaced and there will be other phenomena with different visuals and messages that will keep things fresh.