The hacktivists keep supplying the industry with strong examples as to why more public money should be spent beefing up Internet security and surveillance while eliminating online anonymity. Take Anonymous' recent assaults on the websites of USTelecom and Tech America, two leading technology trade associations that have lent their support to CISPA. It doesn't take a genius to realize that a cyberattack against groups that promote legislation to combat cyberattacks only strengthens their case. It's like shooting a bazooka in a legislative session about gun control. This was not lost on those trade associations, and they exploited this gift from Anonymous to its fullest. Thus, the president of USTelecom claimed that “by their actions Anonymous hacktivists underscore the importance of speedy action on the bipartisan [CISPA] legislation to ensure that the Internet remains an open and safe forum for all.” Regardless of what happens to this particular piece of legislation, it's likely that lawmakers will be under growing pressure from the military-digital complex to do something about Anonymous' attacks—and that “something” would not be conducive to any kind of “Internet freedom.”
We can expect similar developments to take place in China, where in early April a group that calls itself “Anonymous China” defaced several government websites and promised to take down its notorious censorship system. The damage caused is minimal, while the symbolic value derived from exposing the Chinese Internet censorship to the international audiences is arguably insignificant. It's already a well-known problem. But Anonymous' attacks do give the Chinese government good reasons to invest money into online surveillance and, perhaps, even do it with popular support: Anonymous is not above exposing credit card details of innocent victims—and China's burgeoning middle classes will easily grasp the implications of online insecurity. If the strikes continue, Anonymous may be China's equivalent of Stuxnet—the computer worm that disrupted Iranian nuclear facilities—only without imposing any of Stuxnet's crippling costs. Iran's ongoing flirtation with the idea of a “national Internet,” itself a reaction in part to Stuxnet, is a good example of how the rhetoric of cyberattacks may be invoked to justify more Internet control.
Why doesn’t Anonymous seek more effective means of cyberactivism? This is where the organization’s decentralized structure is a liability, not an asset. The movement that claims to have no leaders—well, aside from those “leaders” who happen to be working for the FBI—and that means short-term, easy objectives (often bordering on pranks) can take precedence over long-term strategic goals.
The very idea of an online campaign to defend “Internet freedom” is problematic. It’s not like an appeal to raise money for a presidential candidate or victims of a natural disaster; it takes more than a few clicks or cash donations. Moreover, the goals and priorities of such a campaign are likely to shift all the time, depending on the political context. Defending “Internet freedom” requires constant interpretation, deliberation, and discrimination between different courses of action. In contrast, online fundraising usually has fixed goals and is amenable to small-scale, granular contributions.
Without greater bureaucratization, formal mechanisms for decision-making, and, more importantly, the capacity to accept responsibility when those decisions bring unfortunate consequences, Anonymous may end up posing as great of a threat to Internet freedom as its main nemesis, the U.S. government.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.