Some outlets are reporting that Operation Payback, Anonymous' two-month campaign against the forces of copyright, has concluded, while the homepage for the raid claims that the group has simply decided to change tactics in an attempt to legitimize itself.
Either way, it seems like the wave of denial-of-service attacks against targets like the RIAA, Gene Simmons and the U.S. copyright office have come to an end -- at least for now.
As part of my research, I lurked on a number of forums associated with Operation Payback -- I hung out on various IRC channels, and watched threads about the raid on 4chan -- and made some fascinating discoveries: the chat forums were populated by people from all over the world, the attacks consisted mainly of people using various flooding programs (such as the Low Orbit Ion Cannon pictured above) but some anons claimed to be using botnets as well, the sites and servers used by the group were just as likely to be the targets of DoS attacks as they were to wage them, there is no consensus within the community that Operation Payback is the right thing to do, and many users claimed that the raids were their first forays into the world of electronic (civil) disobedience.
However, it's not those findings that I want to talk about today. At the moment, I'm more interested in interrogating the role of DoS attacks in the contemporary political landscape of the internet.
Anonymous has no shortage of detractors. Some claim the group's antics inflame moral panics about online security and lend credence to arguments for tighter control of the internet. Others point out the hypocrisy of advocating free speech while simultaneously taking down a musician's website because of statements he made regarding piracy.
There's merit in these arguments, but they do seem hyperbolic. Whatever Anonymous may be, they're certainly not "cyber-terrorists" (for that matter, who is?), and a climate of free speech ideally includes a strong right to protest in such a way that you're heard.
Which brings me to my question. Leaving aside the obvious illegality of botnets, I want to question why we view DoS attacks as crimes and not a form of protest. This is a poignant time to pose such a question, as the FBI has reportedly launched an investigation into Operation Payback.
DoS attacks -- at least the kind organized by Anonymous -- essentially make it difficult or impossible to access a website for a brief period of time. I'm still hesitant to say so categorically, but this suggests parallels with legitimate forms of IRL protest like marches, critical mass bike rides and picket lines, all of which are designed to create fairly harmless, temporary disruptions in order to draw attention to a cause or issue, or voice dissatisfaction with an IRL organization.
In some cases, the targets of Operation Payback were down for less than an hour, suggesting that, at this point, DoS attacks are really more of a nuisance than an act of criminal or wanton destruction.
Granted, the attacks did lead to a substantial data leak, including the names of thousands of U.K. residents accused of pirating pornographic films, from the website of ACS:Law. However, the breach highlighted the fact that the firm failed to take adequate security precautions to protect the privacy of those named in the lawsuit. Although Anonymous made the questionable decision to publish that information (as opposed to say forwarding it to the U.K. government), it's still an example of a situation where an act of civil disobedience led to a likely improvement in the system; I'm sure ACS:Law will be more careful going forward, and their experience being dragged before the U.K.'s Information Commissioner will inspire other firms to beef up their security.
There's also something vaguely ageist about laws that forbid certain forms of online direct action. For a generation of young people, the internet is as much a part of their public sphere as the street, yet many digital immigrants -- despite growing up steeped in the spirit of '68 -- seem all too eager to dismiss the forms of collective engagement favoured by the young (Malcolm Gladwell... I'm looking in your direction).
Ultimately, IRL protest is meant to keep leaders and policy makers accountable. Disregard the will of the people long enough, and they might just show up at your door. However, in a globalized world, where as a Canadian, I'm still affected by the policies of the Recording Industry Association of America, we may need to reconsider what we deem acceptable forms of protest if we want to port that accountability to the internet.