Montreal, Canada - What is Anonymous? To some critics, the protest actions taken under the banner of Anonymous will be used by governments to exercise their repressive impulses. Internet critic Evgeny Morozov puts this position in no uncertain terms: "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."
To others, Anonymous represents the finest the internet has to politically offer: "Anonymous demonstrates one of the new core aspects of power in a networked, democratic society: 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," writes legal scholar Yochai Benkler.
Both perspectives are valid - but incomplete. Despite offering opposite assessments, both perpetuate misrepresentations about Anonymous - the protest movement now known for its digital dissent - that are fast becoming common non-sense.
They exist in the internet ether
Like nearly every commentator or journalist - myself included, at an earlier moment - Morozov opens by portraying Anonymous as fundamentally inaccessible, inchoate and spectral: "This movement is so distributed, fluid, and occasionally disorganised..." Yochai Benkler strikes a similar chord: "It is an idea, a zeitgeist, coupled with a set of social and technical practices. Diffuse and leaderless, its driving force is 'lulz' - irreverence, playfulness, and spectacle."
To be sure, Anonymous is not a singularity, but is comprised of multiple, loosely organised nodes with various regional networks in existence. No one group or individual can control the name and iconography, much less claim legal ownership over them, and as such their next steps are difficult to predict. Although many individual participants therein do resist institutionalisation or even defining their norms (see Vox Anon for an important exception), there are logics at play and stable places for interaction.
Operations don't simply spring out of the ether and can be easily linked to a particular network, such as AnonOps, AnonNet, or Voxanon to take three of the most important ones today. At minimum these networks usually will lay claim to, or deny, the source of an operation. Anons are also not completely or always as veiled, as they are often portrayed: there are regular participants, cloaked under pseudonymity rather than anonymity, and often available on stable Internet Relay Chat servers where one can interact with them every day.
By painting Anonymous as so inchoate we not only empirically misrepresent them; we drift inevitably into hyperbole, exaggerating the extent to which people find them threatening, adding to the air of mystery surrounding hackers who fly under that banner, feeding into the hysteria that law enforcement (and the defence contractors selling security and "anti-hacker solutions") self-consciously seek to cultivate.
They can unleash unfathomable evil
Another closely related mantra about Anonymous is it is so unstable and incoherent that any individual can take its name for good and for evil: "They are chaotic good like Robin Hood, and there is chaotic evil as well ... There are some people that just want to see the world burn," notes Josh Corman. While there have been a handful of incidents we can describe as uncharacteristically un-Anonymous or led by one individual (as was the case with the lone anti-abortion hacker who targeted Britain's largest abortion clinic), this doom and gloom prediction of chaos unleashed by evil hackers remains largely unfulfilled - though it looms in the public anxieties of Anonymous as excessively dangerous, in need of a Tora Bora spelunking mission to destroy them before they crack the earth in half.
In the astonishing blizzard of Anonymous-led operations there has never been a large-scale diabolical operation, nor has any existing node ever expressed the desire to do something as rash (and problematic) as taking down the power grid as the NSA purported (that isn't to say that all of Anonymous' operations have been effective nor laudable).
Even the typical Anonymous DDoS attacks, which utilise traffic floods, are unlikely to be successful against sites that perform a lot of data transaction and are served by CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) such as, say, Amazon.com. Anonymous DDoS campaigns have tended to focus on more static, "business card" style sites such as mpaa.org.
Their digital protest tactics, when successful, essentially squat and block access to some of the internet's biggest domains, but only their internet-facing website. By design, if companies are following basic security best practices, the important financial payment processing, trading networks and other core infrastructure is not sitting wide-open on the internet waiting to be attacked. If it were, any security professional would describe such a setup as reckless malfeasance and those sites, where downtime spells financial hemorrhage, would have been hacked to shreds long before Anonymous came on the scene. Their DDoS tactics are a political stunt; the sites that are more vulnerable to DDoS tend not to be actual important infrastructure, just a symbol of that infrastructure.
Over three years into political operations, the closest we saw to a "false flag" operation was with the small hacker group Antisec who were the source of some of the most risqué actions to date (and thus controversial among Anons as well). One of its most outspoken ex-members, Sabu, as it turns out, was also an FBI informant. But even having an FBI informant at the heart of Antisec, there is no compelling evidence that he steered other members into dubious waters that they were not otherwise willing to sail in; in fact, another member with a long history of radical activism, Jeremy Hammond, seems to have quite willingly taken the personal risk of breaking into servers in order to leak politically sensitive information.
While government officials and law enforcement are painting Anonymous as one of HL Mencken's "imaginary goblins" poised to menace the public, it's worth noting that national governments around the world have aspired to control the internet, and have been developing statutes that erode individual rights and privacies, long before this entity came to prominence. Anonymous is more a reaction to these trends than a cause. The brutal, depressing and dire fact of the matter is that an expansive surveillance state is not here to come but is already in our midst. The surveillance state is so well entrenched that if Anonymous were to vanish tomorrow, or never had happened in the first place, it is doubtful that the trajectory of the expansion of the surveillance state would be deterred. It seems misplaced, even disingenuous, at this juncture, to blame Anonymous' actions for increasing the rate at which governments and security companies seek to control the internet, private data, and online freedoms.
Their political impact is negligible
Morozov also makes the excellent point that spectacle - one of Anonymous' specialties - is politically limited. We must resist declaring Anonymous as the new face of democratic digital politics. They - and, by extension, spectacle - will not provide the antidote to cure the world of its many political ills, or in more modest terms, cannot singlehandedly save the internet from the countless threats that plague it.
But contrary to Morozov who favours policy solutions, the work of politics and social transformation requires a diverse toolkit - from fine-tuned government interventions to rowdy subversive tactics - and we should be wary of christening any particular tactic a magic bullet. If forced to pick between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Anonymous to fight for digital rights and civil liberties online, I would likely pick the former over the latter. But this is a false dichotomy. Distinct formats need not be mutually exclusive or even in competition; they can and do often cross-pollinate. We need compelling stories that dramatise the issues the government would like us to forget, and that make people care. We need investigative journalists who dedicate years to tracking down sources and putting the pieces of a difficult puzzle together. We need independent Internet Service Providers committed to the privacy of their users. And we need advocacy groups with lawyers, lobbyists, and policy strategists.
Even if spectacle alone is insufficient to engender political change, it is hard to overstate its importance for publicising issues and clarifying political stakes. With Anonymous, it is not simply that their DDoS tactics dramatise specific issues, such as with their campaign in the winter of this year against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. It is that in their totality - as a masked entity bearing the name Anonymous - it relays an urgent message about anonymity to contemplate. Given the contemporary reality of a corporate and state controlled surveillance apparatus, Anonymous stands out, compels, and enchants for a very particular reason: it has provided a small but potent oasis of anonymity in the current expansive desert of surveillance, much like the one quite literally being built in the Utah desert right now by the NSA.
In an era when most of our personal data is archived online - in a time when states and corporations collect, market, and monetise our plans and preferences - there is indeed something hopeful, one might even say necessary, in Anonymous' effacement of the self, in the cloaking of their identities, in striking at legislation seen to threaten privacy, and seeking to expose the depth and extent of privatised government contractors that have rapidly emerged as a security apparatus parallel to that of the national government.
The more immediate danger in portraying Anonymous as a diabolical, nebulous hydra is that fallacious arguments such as this will only serve to strengthen the arguments of those who seek stiffer legal penalties against protest activity. Alternatively, we could face the current, depressing realities of the state of surveillance - and the surveillance state - and inspire individuals to join the fight against efforts to undermine individual freedoms, while we still can.
Gabriella Coleman is the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy in the Department of Art History & Communication Studies at McGill University.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.