Online Activism: Are You Anonymous?

Anonymous international
We have reached a new era in political participation with the advent of online activism. In the “good old days” intelligence operatives and agents did their best to uncover information and plans to either embarrass enemies or to stay ahead of their weapon systems.

That was then. There are new players now, and the troublesome thing about them to authorities is that the new players do not do “business as usual.” They do not sell secrets to the highest bidder. They do not offer to keep secrets in exchange for trade advantages. They are not working for countries or governments, which means that they cannot be defused by exerting diplomatic, economic,  or military pressure  on their bosses — they HAVE no bosses.

1. The Leader problem

For example several times police have attempted to persuade the leaders of OccupyWallStreet to get their followers to disperse and go home.  This is standard procedure for mobs with leaders. If the leaders do not cooperate, then the next step is to take the leaders into custody, hoping that the group will fall apart once leadership is gone.

What they may not have anticipated is that the very idea of leaders and followers has been rejected by this movement; while some members might be more influential than others, the simple fact is that there is no person or group of persons what they can seize and realistically hope to end this situation. The decentralized nature of these new movements, drawn as it is not from the old cell model of early revolutionaries, but from imitation of the relatively decentralized structure of the Internet itself.  No real boss means no headquarters, hence no military targets to try that shock and awe out on.

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2. The Hardware problem

The new activism movements have no armies, ships or planes. For the last 200 years the United States has concentrated on land, sea and air power as the preeminent factor in maintaining global supremacy. But now they are in a pickle, because times have moved on and left them behind: the weapon of this new age is Information, not bullets or bombs. You cannot blow up an idea; walls and Kevlar vests are no protection against information, which finds its way around blockades and damage, particularly since the Internet has been designed from the beginning to be decentralized and fault-tolerant; since its information flows are dynamically routed they are automatically detoured to bypass faulty routers or servers.

To stop the free flow of information across the Internet a government would have to kill the goose that laid the golden egg: they would have to disable all the largest nodes on the network so that effective rerouting collapses. Needless to say, governments and multinational corporations are becoming dependent upon the Internet just as you and I are; there might be significant damage both to the global and national economies if the Internet became unusable. As I have remarked elsewhere in my One Way Change article, no one really wants to go back to doing business by telephone and mail-order catalogs. Yesterday’s technological curiosity has become today’s necessity.  Imagine if IBM or MacDonald’s had tried to build a business empire without having telephones.  Although many business wish that someone actually owned the Internet, that there was one central power controlling it, they tend to lose steam when you ask them just who they would trust with that much power.

Anonymous

3. The Scapegoat problem

When I was in high school I was required to take a course entitled “Problems of American Democracy”. But the older name was clearer: “Americanism vs. Communism”.  Communism was the enemy, and the course was designed to stress the dangers of the system and to demonize its founders and leaders. We were led to believe that Communism was taking over the world and that its followers would do anything, no matter how despicable, in order to spread their “evil empire”.

Well, we see how well that worked out. Deprived of the profit incentive of capitalist economies, the Soviet economy crumbled badly enough to bring about a change in government. Apparently, you cannot grow crops with slogans, and you cannot house and clothe a people with mere patriotism.

At first I thought China would be the next logical scapegoat; since their economic and political evolution seemed to be a a decade or two behind that of Russia. But Osama Bin Laden changed all of that; Terrorism replaced Communism as the new Big Bad Wolf. This was awfully convenient for America’s military-industrial sector, because since terrorism had no capital to conquer, the War on Terror could be maintained indefinitely, like the War on Drugs. With a little care and foresight, it could be possible to wage a new kind of war, one whose polemic and profits could to go on forever.

Anonymous

4. The Rise of Anonymous and other LOIC vigilante groups

Now that Bin Laden is dead (or so we are told), the U.S. thought it could get back to business as usual. But while the planners map out which resource-rich third world country they will exploit next, a new threat to their order has emerged: Anonymous and similar entities.

Who is Anonymous? To even ask that  question shows ignorance, yet many are guilty of it.  The police who attempt to contacts its leaders sometimes do not seem to be able to wrap their minds around the fact that there is NO leader to talk to. And this is a problem for them, because the standard way to crush a movement is to imprison or assassinate the leaders. But you cannot imprison an idea, and you cannot assassinate a dream.

Anonymous has no armies of fanatical thugs. This is no James Bond movie. Their main ammunition is the truth, but in between finding and releasing incriminating data, they unleash the power of the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC).

Back in the time of Napoleon,  concentration of force meant you could get a group of soldiers to shoot at the same target at the same time. You COULD shoot one gun at an enemy 200 times, but the damage is far more effective if you get 200 guys to shoot at once and then you have 200 bullets flying into the target.

Nowadays the target is often a server, a computer connected to the internet. Instead of bullets, what you fire off at the server is HTTP requests. Servers are not like telephones; they are designed to handle multiple simultaneous requests. But like all technology, there is a limit to how many requests they can respond to at any given time. So you can overwhelm a server’s resources by simply getting thousands of computers to ping that server at the same time. LOIC makes this simple; all of the participants load the program into their computers and point them to a particular address where central control resides. The “Hivemind” informs all of the participating computers where the target is and then triggers them to commence. When the target server is deluged with all of these pings, even if it manages to not crash it is still unable to respond to any other requests until the storm of pings is over.

In addition to the LOIC Distributed-Denial-of_Service attacks, Anonymous and other groups have dedicated hackers who have been able to score some impressive stunts: they hacked NATO computers, hacked FOX News, and even hacked and defaced the FBI website. Those who dismiss the abilities of Anonymous hackers as unimportant are either optimistic or in denial.

Anonymous

5. The Problem of Managing Change

Will the current wave of cyber-activism bring about real change in governments and economic and social institutions? It is undeniable that the moneyed powers have been rattled; the tactics used against peaceful protesters now include attempts to discredit the protests by infusing them with derelicts, mass arrests, chemical weapons such as pepper balls (like paintballs but they sting a lot more), tear gas, and the amazingly illegal ruse of covering police names and IDs with tape to avoid accountability for their actions.  These actions show how perturbed the powers that be have become — they are resorting, again, to methods that backfired in the 60s as they will backfire today, because people empathize with underdogs and oppressed persons, especially people who already feel dispossessed and disenfranchised themselves by the erosion of their buying power as even more money becomes concentrated in the hands of the 1% super rich who have no need of it.

People are standing up, the Establishment is beating at the flames in a heavy-handed way as usual, and the People are beginning to sit up and notice that someone is actually trying to represent them and address their suffering. But will all of this result in any real change at all….or will it fizzle again as it did in the 60s?

I’d like to argue here that this time there might actually be some real change. And for several reasons:

(a) Protests of the 60s era were always vulnerable to charges that they were organized by elitists who dictated their agendas to their followers. The organizers, of course, were also tempting targets for counterrevolutionary forces. But in the new Internet era, the information exchanges is not simply trickle-down, but is bidirectional; followers can tweet or email in suggestions.  And in the case of LOIC attacks, members can simply vote with their feet: if they do not agree with the selected target, they can turn off their computers and decline to join in the attack. In this way, although there is a centralized trigger to say “go!”, there is democracy in that unwilling participation cannot be forced: members have to agree on targets. In this way Anonymous and others preserve both coordination (to concentrate attacks on a single target) and individual choice (whether to join a particular attack).

(b) It is difficult to imagine how meaningful change can succeed without the agreement of the people. Yet a valid consensus is only possible with communication, and the only widespread means of communication available in the 1960s were telephones and the postal system. (TV doesn’t count. since it is a one-way medium used to distribute entertainment and news, not for dialogues.)  That was then. Now we have email, instant messaging, a billion cell phones, and are fast approaching the point where there will be a computer (or “information appliance” as some have dubbed them) in every home, absorbing into itself the television and telephone and radio. After snafus and worries about voting machines, I kinda have to ask: is there some reason why encryption makes it safe to buy things online, but not safe enough to vote online? Now that we can actually get live feedback from our population, why not finally listen to them?

(c) The looming shadow of the Cold War, with its constant worry about nuclear showdown oppressed out thoughts for sixty years. And it isn’t completely over yet; though the Soviet Union has restructured, China remains (and we don’t even want to talk about North Korea). I would maintain, however, that China’s attempt to hold up a Great Firewall to shut out the modern ideas of the West will ultimately fail, and thus the people of China will demand change as the people of the Soviet Union did. France has nuclear weapons, but for some reason I don’t hear people worrying about France starting a nuclear war.  In fact, now that we realize that a nuclear winter could wipe out any survivors of a nuclear war, we are finally even rethinking the idea that we need a stockpile of nuclear weapons to prevent nuclear war.  Apart from whack jobs like Kim Jong Il, I think most people would really like to live long enough to see the wonders that this 21st century will bring. And if we finally get to the point where we can stop cowering in the shadow of our missiles, then we can finally take a turn at trying to make the kind of major changes in our governments that we would prefer not to enact at the cost of appearing disorganized and off-balance to nuclear opportunists. People think more clearly when they aren’t stifled by fear of extinction.

–MRK

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2 Responses to “Online Activism: Are You Anonymous?”

  1. Thank you for reading, Slovakia. The history of the human race teaches us that one of the hardest things to do is to keep governments honest. Even governments founded by decent men and women can fall prey to corruption and special interest cabals, because the founders do not live forever. I would like to believe that Marx and Lenin were idealists who meant well. The trouble is, strong centralized governments are good at destroying any voices of criticism or dissent. When we stop allowing others the freedom to disagree with our decisions and opinions, we let fear and paranoia push us toward ruthless oppression. But there is always hope for the future. As Lincoln said: “You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you CANNOT fool ALL of the people ALL of the time. —MRK

  2. Slovakia says:

    Corruption is a common burden of most post-socialist countries. Their nations got morally destroyed by communism. Slovakia is one of the most corrupted countries in the world. I know, because that’s where I am from and where I live.

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