Did the Spanish police dismantle Anonymous?

Authorities claim they have arrested the “leadership” of the nebulous, non-hierarchical online activist community.

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The Spanish police proudly announced they had ‘dismantled the leadership of Anonymous’ – a nebulous group of online activists with no formal leadership structure whatsoever [Al Jazeera]

The title of this article may be shocking for internet users who are familiar with Anonymous, but this is exactly what the Spanish police proudly announced on Junef 9. “The dismantlement of the leadership of the hacktivist organisation Anonymous,” they said. The way the announcement was made has caused netizens to make fun of what they consider the authorities’ lack of understanding of the internet’s architecture and culture. This is another sign of the gap between people and their political representatives, a key cause of citizen mobilisations against the two main political parties in Spain, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the People’s Party (PP).

According to the official communiqué [Spanish] released by the National Police:

“Three of its leaders were arrested in our country. One of them kept a server in his house, from which attacks were coordinated and carried out against government, financial and business websites all over the world (…) Through DDoS (Distributed denial of service), they attacked the Sony PlayStation store, the BBVA bank, Bankia, ENEL and the websites of the governments of Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Iran, Chile, Colombia and New Zealand.”

DDoS attacks, which make an online resource unavailable to its intended users, have become quite popular in the last few years as a way to take action against banks, governments, and large corporations. According to renowned intellectual property lawyer Javier de la Cueva, these actions do not help people’s demands: “DDoS [attacks] are a waste of time, they do not contribute to creating alternatives that last. Those who think you can actually achieve something through DDoS remind me of policemen who announce the dismantlement of Anonymous’ leadership.”

Any user who is not logged in when accessing a website is, technically, anonymous. The concept has been adopted by a decentralised, horizontal, and global online community acting anonymously in a coordinated manner towards a common goal. It has become increasingly associated with collaborative, international “hacktivism” (though many who take part in such actions prefer to be dubbed “online activists” or “web activists”, as their operations are not what is traditionally defined as “hacking”) and the promotion of freedom of speech.

Unidentified individuals undertake actions and use the Anonymous label as attribution. Actions labelled as Anonymous have ranged from supporting WikiLeaks and its founder Jullian Assange, to supporting citizen mobilisations against repressive regimes across the Middle East and North Africa.

According to Wikipedia: “Anonymous has no leader or controlling party and relies on the collective power of its individual participants acting in such a way that the net effect benefits the group.” The way it works can be compared to the free software movement and to the Wikipedia project itself, where people contribute with their efforts to a common project without a centralised organisation. A few hours after the announcement of its dismantlement, the Official National Police website suffered another Distributed Denial-of-Service attack that made it inaccessible to visitors. It was the attempt to prove that the alleged dismantlement was absurd, and that Anonymous was still active.

Ignorance of how the internet works – or intentional disinformation?

There seems to be a fundamental contradiction in announcing the dismantlement of the leadership of a collective that lacks leadership by definition. Is this real ignorance or an intentional attempt to disinform?

Internet users have benefited from this fcontradiction to expose what they consider is the government’s lack of understanding as to how the internet works. Through the #cupulasinexistentes [“nonexistentleadership”] tag on Twitter they have shared acerbic and sarcastic comments on the risks of engaging in any kind of activity for fear of being dismantled. One of the most highly regarded Spanish lawyers, David Bravo, tweeted: “I’m meeting with some friends in the evening but I’ll say no more in case we get dismantled.” Other comments talk about “dismantling” the leadership of online community managers, old women gossiping in the neighbourhoods, bankers at the World Economic Forum, or Twitter users employing the #nonexistentleadership hashtag.
Some users and activists have gone beyond mocking the official declarations. They have rather assumed that there is an official attempt to disinform the population in order to keep online users under control. According to Spanish blogger Enrique Dans:

“Spain is contributing to the institutional construction of a parallel reality intended to distract and deceive citizens. If you were indignant, you will be even more, but a part of the population will associate you with ‘those internet users that are as dangerous as ETA or al-Qaeda’. In Spain, the police does not protect citizens any more, but actively participates in their disinformation.”

Net neutrality and ‘Sinde Law’

This follows the same line of the confrontation between the Spanish government and netizens derived from the passing of the 2009 Sustainable Economy Bill [Spanish] (known in Spain as “Sinde Law”). The bill will allow the newly created Spanish Intellectual Property Commission, which depends on the Ministry of Culture, to decide which sites should be blocked or have their content removed. Reducing “online piracy” is the stated goal. The law will most likely come into effect this summer – and strike a major blow against net neutrality.

Political representatives in Spain talk about the need to protect artists and culture, but most internet users perceive a reluctance to let go of a business model that does not reflect the way culture is shared and consumed in the 21st century. In words of Spanish sociologist, communications and internet scholar Manuel Castells: “What we are witnessing is the power of a medieval union, the SGAE [“General Association for Authors and Editors”], to block the digital transformation of a whole country.”

Spanish netizens have fiercely opposed “Sinde Law”, an issue considered by many as the origin of the mobilisations that have been taking place all over the country for more than a month so far. With corruption and unemployment growing, and a political structure that favours a two-party system and that does not provide many alternatives to the people, an online police state can only bring more indignant citizens together.

Leila Nachawati is a Spanish-Syrian activist and social media manager who writes on human rights and new forms of communication. She is a board member of AERCO (Spanish Association for Social Media Managers) and a contributor for projects including Global Voices Online and Periodismo Humano.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.