With mounting concerns over computer security after a rash of high-profile hacks last year, governments around the world have been increasingly quick to condemn and punish the actions of the nebulous "hacktivist" collective Anonymous and its associated groups. The United States has been particularly bullish in the affair; in January, NSA Director General Keith Alexander attempted to frame Anonymous as a national security threat, warning that they might soon have the will and the ability to shut down national power grids. But Wealth of Networks author and Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler says that the current attitude toward Anonymous stands only to incriminate relatively innocuous and in some cases valorous acts of online dissent.
In his opinion piece, "Hacks of Valor," Benkler last week described the United States' efforts to thwart Anonymous as needlessly aggressive and short-sighted. "Anonymous is not an organization," he writes. "It is an idea, a zeitgeist, coupled with a set of social and technical practices." This was perhaps best demonstrated in February, when members of Polish parliament suddenly donned Guy Fawkes masks – the symbol of Anonymous, derived from its origins as an internet meme – in protest of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. "It is also a protest movement, inspiring action both on and off the Internet, that seeks to contest the abuse of power by governments and corporations and promote transparency in politics and business."
Benkler worries that the U.S. government's reactionary campaign against Anonymous "poses a greater threat to freedom of expression, creativity, and innovation than any threat posed by the disruptions themselves." He points out that despite some fringe elements of the somewhat ambiguous ideology, the majority of the notable acts committed under the Anonymous banner amount to a form of cheekily irreverent, and occasionally poignant, online protest.
"At their worst, Anonymous’ practices range from unpleasant pranksterism to nasty hooliganism; they are not part of a vast criminal or cyberterrorist conspiracy."
Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, by far the most covered aspect of Anonymous antics, temporarily take down the websites of corporations or government entities for a handful of hours by flooding targeted sites with requests from the computers of everyone participating. The method, far from what would be considered "hacking," involves little more than clicking a button inside pre-made software, and the results, Benkler explains, are mostly symbolic. "It causes disruption, not destruction, and the main technique that Anonymous has used requires participants to join self-consciously and publicly, leaving their Internet addresses traceable. By design, these are sit-ins: Participants illegally occupy the space of their target."
Benkler maintains that for all its moral ambiguity, the rise of so-called "hacktivism" catalyzed by Anonymous and their ilk reveal an important facet of our networked society, which perhaps these authoritarian entities have reason to fear: "Individuals are vastly more effective and less susceptible to manipulation, control, and suppression by traditional sources of power than they were even a decade ago," he writes. "At their worst, Anonymous’ practices range from unpleasant pranksterism to nasty hooliganism; they are not part of a vast criminal or cyberterrorist conspiracy."