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!