It's hard to deny the intellectual ambiguity of “Internet freedom” when among its staunchest defenders are idealistic hacktivists from Anonymous and hard-nosed diplomats from the U.S. State Department—two groups that otherwise disagree on everything else. Ironically, both may end up hurting the very noble cause that they seek to promote.
The diplomats' problems are quite well-known by now. While Hillary Clinton likes to give speeches in which she fashions herself the world's greatest defender of “Internet freedom,” the harsh reality is that her own government is its greatest enemy. Given the never-ending flow of draconian copyright and cybersecurity laws coming from Washington, this fact is getting harder and harder to conceal from the global public, who starts to wonder why American diplomats keep criticizing Russia or China but don't say anything about the impressive online spying operation that the National Security Agency is building in Utah. Nor does the State Department object when America's allies push for harsh surveillance laws; Britain, with its proposed surveillance legislation, is a case in point. America's “Internet freedom agenda” is at best toothless and at worst counterproductive. While focusing on (and overselling) the liberating promise of social media in authoritarian regimes, it conceals a number of emerging domestic threats that have nothing to do with dictators—and everything to do with aggressive surveillance, disappearing privacy, and the astonishing greed of Silicon Valley.
The case of Anonymous is not as straightforward. This movement is so distributed, fluid, and occasionally disorganized that anyone seeking to pigeonhole it into a coherent ideological doctrine would not get too far. Still, most of its recent high-profile attacks—upon the intelligence firm Stratfor, the Central Intelligence Agency, the signatories of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (which, among other things, aims to thwart Internet piracy), and the Chinese government—are motivated by a desire to defend “Internet freedom.” In this lofty goal, the agendas, if not the approaches, of Anonymous and the State Department overlap.
Why these particular targets? Predictably, Anonymous hates Western governments for ushering in more surveillance and draconian piracy laws; the security industry—for satisfying the growing policing demands of those governments; the Chinese government—for being the world's mightiest Internet censor.
Such flashy attacks are still widely discussed in the media, and that can inspire valuable broader discussion of some important Internet issues, such as the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. But spectacles, which are bound to get boring, are not a sustainable political strategy, as the media will eventually lose interest. And Anonymous has yet to go beyond spectacle and offer a more meaningful way for its members to contribute. Cyberattacks are cheap, easy, and can attract thousands of participants without demanding much of them. In this, they can be seen as a form of “slacktivism”—they make everyone feel good but don't necessarily advance the cause. They can be great for stunts, but one can't change the world with stunts alone.
But—yet another parallel to the State Department—it's not just that Anonymous' campaigns might be toothless. They may prove counterproductive as well. The cybersecurity industry has almost certainly benefited from the buzz and fear-mongering generated by Anonymous' attacks. Every new incursion by Anonymous must be greeted as good news in the offices of companies providing cyberdefense to both public and private sectors. Now that Anonymous has revealed that even private intelligence-gathering firms are not safe—a few months ago, it obtained the emails from Stratfor, which eventually were published by WikiLeaks—it's a great time to be a provider of cybersecurity services!
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.