Hack the Power Back

Written for & originally published in Dreamland Magazine, Edition 2.

“You have nowhere to hide. We are everywhere… For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind, for our own enjoyment, we will proceed to expel you from the internet,” Anonymous announced to the Church of Scientology, via YouTube, in 2008.

 “Project Chanology”, a series of attacks against Scientologist websites, prank calls to the Dianetic Hotline and “black faxes” (to waste their precious ink) was the now notorious group’s first real operation.

Why Scientologists? Anonymous saw the organisation as a “malign influence over those who have come to trust [them] as leaders” Plus, the Church of Scientology had attempted to eradicate a video of Tom Cruise spouting Scientologist dogma from the internet – a video said to be “comedy gold”. If there is one thing these hackers won’t stand for, it is censorship of the lulz – or, censorship of anything else, for that matter.

 Anonymous, a global collective of vigilante hackers and organisational minds, were drawn together by 4chan.org – the home of the lolcat, rickroll, and graphic reminders that “what has been seen cannot be unseen”. Initially they were tricksters gleaning unspeakable joy from the rage their online antics provoked.

But stunts against Scientologists were just the beginning. By 2013, no multinational company, CEO or politician would be able to escape the hacktivist’s reach.

 On the 19th of September 2010, Anonymous launched their second project, “Operation: Payback is a Bitch”. Their target? Anyone trying to enforce copyright law online.

“Anonymous is tired of corporate interests controlling the internet and silencing the people’s right to spread information, but more importantly, the right to share with one another,” the group declared.

What followed was a worldwide series of DDoS attacks – a method of disabling websites by flooding their servers with hundreds of thousands of requests to access them (the hi-tech equivalent of pressing the refresh key 800, 000 times).

Websites for the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America were the first to go down. Then, closer to home, the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft dropped out, along with 8,000 other small websites hosted on the same server. By October 7th, the collective website’s downtime was 537.55 hours.

By December, “Operation Avenge Assange” was underway. Paypal, Visa and Mastercard were in the firing line, for refusing to provide a platform for donations to WikiLeaks – the online media organisation which leaked thousands of confidential US diplomatic cables.

Paypal services were disrupted for just one hour, costing the company $5.5 million. In April 2011, in response to Sony’s strict limitations on console modification, Anonymous “compromised” 100 million Sony accounts. Sony services Qriocity and Playstation Network were down for a month. The company estimated the cost of these attacks at $171 million.

 “Anonymous kind of was like the big strong buff kid who had low self esteem. And then all of a sudden, he punched somebody in the face and was like, ‘Holy shit, I’m really strong,” Mike Vitale, a network administrator associated with the group, told documentary maker Brian Knappenberger.

 In an interview with Dreamland Magazine, a representative of the Gold Coast chapter of Anonymous explained the group’s modus operandi: “To an extent, initiating operations is what gives us back power. It reinforces the status quo. I think people felt more helpless before hacktivism became a widely used form of protest.”

Nowdays, hackers all over the world are using the Anonymous title to fight systems and companies which they believe have failed them.

The homophobic stance of the Nigerian government, the Syrian government’s media suppression, Russian official’s pro-Putin social media campaigns, the Philippines’ “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012”, the English Defence League’s stance on immigration, the Westboro Baptist Church’s funeral picketing, the American Federal Reserve Bank’s economic policies – all have earned the ire of those claiming to represent Anonymous, and all have fallen victim to information leaks, hacking and website vandalism.  

 It’s not all about embarrassing politicians and costing multinationals money though. If Anonymous is to be taken as a serious political group, then it is a group pressing for democratic rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of association, and democratic values such as governmental transparency and fairness.

 Dreamland’s Anonymous source stated that the core values of the organisation are justice, truth, and peace. “All that we do is for the benefit of the 99%, to pick up where the system has failed.”

Like many today, the men behind the memes feel increasingly disenfranchised.

“Actual power is drifting away from the arenas of democratic control, transparency, and accountability. Many citizens feel – and are – disempowered… they have no entry into political life that can make a difference,” states Professor Peter Dahlgren, expert in democratic engagement and media studies at Lund University.

 Whilst in the past political change was catalysed by people whose outrage saw them take to the streets in defiance of the powers that be, today the street protest is simply unable to confront the transnational nature of power.

 Monique Mitchelson, organiser of the March Against Monsanto Brisbane, says her efforts to demonstrate in a legal and peaceful way were hindered by bureaucracy and media corruption.

Nowadays, protest isn’t simply meeting on the same day at the same place with picket signs in tow.

Monique was required to attain a permit from the Brisbane City Council for a “peaceful assembly”, buy public liability insurance for the protest (quoted at $700-$800) and to notify the police of the assembly details.

To meet these requirements, the protest was hosted by the Greens party, who provided the public liability insurance, but stopped the protest having any public affiliation with its Anonymous supporters.

“They could help us as individuals, but not representatives or members of Anonymous… if we couldn’t get an organisation [the Greens] on board we would have been silenced. It’s definitely a barrier to free speech,” Monique says.

 And, whilst Anonymous stunts continue to make headlines worldwide, traditional, and especially peaceful protests remain unreported by the mainstream media.

Speaking about the global March Against Monsanto, Monique states, “Two million marched on the one day, and there was nothing. I sent press releases to everyone – all the local and national radio stations, Channel Nine, Channel Seven News, ABC, SBS, and nobody picked it up except for 4ZZZ radio station.”

Monique also says that one of the major Australian TV networks refused to allow a journalist to even attend the march, “If he was seen there he would be seen to be endorsing the March, just by turning up. They couldn’t have that.”

These “media blackouts” aren’t the simple imaginings of tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorists either.

Professor of Television and Radio Studies at the University of Illinois, Lisa Brooten, asks, “Should it surprise us that those media who depend on corporate money to remain alive and functioning would act in the interests of these corporations when there is any kind of social dissent that involves them?”

Dahlgren also points to the corruption of the mainstream media, stating; “Monsanto extend beyond their boardrooms, no doubt even into the political elites. As a huge conglomerate, it probably even has financial ties to some of the mainstream media, and can send effective signals about what to cover and not to cover. Certain issues – especially in regard to corporate and financial actors – are simply too big to risk that they become popular political issues.”

 According to media expert, Professor Tina Askanius, protesters often feel that violent protests are the only way to get coverage.

The problem is that lobbing Molotov cocktails and burning effigies of Kevin Rudd can lead to the wrong kind of media attention.

“Mainstream media tend to amplify the sensationalist aspects of protests and reduce the coverage to a question of rampant and meaningless ‘violence’ largely neglecting the actual cause of a protest and the critique raised by a movement,” Askanius explains.

The virtual violence that Anonymous wreak on their transnational targets is harder to condemn.

Anonymous are seen as modern day Robin Hoods, taking a stab at “the man”, and revealing unscrupulous multinational companies and greedy governments.

“In an era when many issues are transnational in character… activists can now pursue issues and corporate actors across national boundaries – into an embryonic global civil society,” says Dahlgren.

Brooten states that many western governments are facing a legitimacy crises, and, “Given the abuses of large centres of power and their (undemocratic) monopolisation of much relevant information, whistle-blowing is often a legitimate function and can have democratic benefits.”

 Hacktivism, however, is not all beer and skittles. Whilst their power lies in the transnational nature of their activities, hacktivists face the very real threat of being prosecuted by their own governments for their illegal activities.

Anonymous have put real lives in jeopardy, having published company’s customer’s credit card details, revealed the home addresses of paedophiles involved in child pornography websites, and helped release government documents which include the real names and addresses of undercover police officers, informants and spies.

Dahlgren asserts that information leaks can hurt individuals, legitimate organisations, and even whole societies, pointing out that, “Much hacking is and can be very damaging.”

 If governments want to seriously contend with groups like Anonymous, Askanius says that they must stop “merely striving to evoke the experience of participating and the feeling of being included among citizens, and actually want to bring people closer to power holders and the political process”.

Governments fail to recognise that members of Anonymous are citizens too, citizens whose democratic needs are not being met.

As Askanius points out, it is time our leaders replace “pseudo-democratic, half hearted online services” with authentic measures to integrate technology with democracy.

 Yet, by the same token, if Anonymous is to seriously change the political landscape of today, they must be willing to take their keyboard politics into real life.

“Representing as a member of Anonymous is important, you won’t see us on television, the billionaire running 70% of the media will make sure of that. We have to make ourselves known to the public, show them we are everywhere,” states our Anonymous source.

Hacktivists must have a real life presence, including public assemblage.

Monique says whilst she supports Anonymous, laptop activism alone can’t change legislation. “I think it’s better to join an actual political party. If you’re on the extreme and you drop out of society how are you going to have an impact on the causes that you believe in?” she asks.

At the end of the day, there are still many people exercising their political expression -it’s just a matter of balancing your delivery with legality, morality and effectiveness.

Some people choose to deface every Monsanto-loving website on the internet. Others release top secret documents exposing incompetence and corruption. Many join political groups and picket on the side walk in dinky campaign hats and oversized party T-shirts, waving at cars and busses full of people looking on in pity and confusion. 
One or two will even march butt naked down the street, waving a flaming banner and challenging anyone to defy their stance on the legality of magic mushrooms.

But who will take the power back? That remains to be seen.


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