Michael Lerner

Wednesday - Apr 27, 2011

The short answer is “you are”–you and the 2 billion other people who use the Internet. More on this in a moment.

There’s also another “anonymous,” an amorphous  group of people around the world who claim they’re fighting for free speech. Because of their cyber-attacks on targets as diverse as Sony’s PlayStation Network (Anonymous denies stealing any customer data) and the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, Anonymous has been branded as criminals. But depending on your point of view, this rebellious band can also be seen as Internet freedom fighters.

According to their YouTube manifesto published last December, “We are not a terrorist organization as governments, demagogues, and the media would have your believe. Rather, Anonymous is a spontaneous collective of people who share the common goal of protecting the free flow of information on the Internet.” Anonymous has compared their actions to those of American Civil Rights workers of the 1960s.

Members of the collective reportedly include software programmers, professionals and IT types. They take down websites by using denial-of-service attacks. Anonymous harnesses an army of zombie computers to direct simultaneous service requests to a website, causing the server to overload and then crash. They claim, “We do no damage to the computer hardware.”

Anonymous attacked Visa, MasterCard and PayPal when the companies stopped processing donations for Wikileaks. The group crashed Egyptian government websites in retaliation for taking the country offline. More recently, they embarrassed HBGary, a computer security firm with numerous high level government and corporate clients, by hacking into its network.

In many ways, the Internet remains a new frontier. There’s a certain romance to a band of outliers who pledge to protect free speech by challenging multinational corporations and governments. Of course the targets of the attacks hardly see it that way and are actively trying to round up these outlaws. Will they succeed?

Being anonymous is one of the great strengths of the Internet. We don’t hesitate to research subjects online that might prove too sensitive to discuss face-to-face with a research librarian. We buy products online that we might be too embarrassed to purchase in a retail store. Then there’s the porn industry, which makes billions of dollars from its anonymous clients. Concealing one’s identity has advantages.

The only way to unmask Anonymous is for all of us to reveal ourselves as well. The question is, are we ready to pay that price?