Anonymous and how technology designs communities – Mustafa Al Bassam
The Internet is a technological playground that allows for the rapid development and prototyping of social spaces with a wide spectrum of properties and characteristics. These social spaces can by design be, for example, slow-paced or fast-paced, spontaneous or prudent, anonymous or pseudonymous, permanent or short-lived.
This technology adds an entirely new dimension of social properties not possible with traditional social spaces – whether it be the workplace, the church or the pub, perhaps the same way that the emergence of civilization thousands of years ago created our traditional dimension of social spaces and revolutionized humanity.
Anonymous is an amorphous Internet gathering formed circa 2004. The intrinsic social properties that characterize Anonymous are birthed from a delicate mix of conditions predetermined by the technological social spaces they happen to use to communicate: initially anonymous image boards and then pseudonymous Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks. Anonymous is a product of the Internet machine. Anonymous is a product of the Internet machine.
Anonymous is a mass of autonomous sub-communities that have varying (but usually shared) agendas and goals, that are advanced or implemented through activities called “operations”. More recently, agendas and operations have taken the form of activism and are politically motivated (such as Operation Freedom which aimed to fight oppressive regimes in the Arab spring), but this was not always the case (for example, one operation purely for the “lulz” involved invading social networking site Habbo Hotel and blocking members from accessing the digital hotel’s pool, because it was “closed due to fail and AIDS”, simply to incite a reaction).
My first experience of an Anonymous operation was in September of 2010, when software firm Aiplex was contracted by the MPAA to launch Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks to take down websites such as The Pirate Bay which refuse to take down copyright infringing content. Anonymous reacted to this with “Operation Payback”, a campaign which turned the tables and took down the MPAA and the RIAA website through DDoS attacks. The poetic justice caught my attention.
I first learned about Operation Payback through an article published on TorrentFreak titled “4chan to DDoS RIAA Next – Is This the Protest of the Future?”. “According to a flyer being distributed around the net, ‘Operation Payback‘ will now spread to another popular hate figure’s website”, the article stated, with a link to the flyer. The flyer contained instructions on how to participate in the DDoS attack and a link to the operation’s IRC chatroom, where participants communicated and organised.
Operation Payback initially began with around 300 participants in the chatroom, and hovered around 100 for the next few months. Several months later (December), the number of participants spiked sharply to 7000 in a single chatroom as a response to a single unifying event: PayPal and Visa blocking donations to WikiLeaks (to which Anonymous responded by taking down PayPal and the Visa website with DDoS attacks). This was a tipping point that provided the fuel for Anonymous to continue on a rampage of activity for the next few years, that eventually lead to the famous Syria Files and “Global Intelligence” (Stratfor) Files hacked by Anonymous and published by WikiLeaks in 2012. Many of those 7000 people stuck around for a while and branched Operation Payback into other operations that involve other, often more localised but similar issues concerning freedom of speech and justice.
Researchers at the Sociology Department at Lancaster University have compiled a list of 220 Anonymous operations, from Operation Egypt to Operation Russia to Operation World Bank. The majority of these operations can be traced back through a series of branched operations to a single root: Operation Payback. Thus, for example Operation Egypt was launched during the Arab spring, was born as a branch of Operation Tunisia, which was in turn branched from Operation Payback.
To understand the nature of this chaotic and fluid “branching” of Anonymous operations over the past few years, it is important to understand the technological social platform where they mostly originate: Internet Relay Chat (IRC). IRC is an Internet chat protocol (like HTTP for web pages or SMTP for email) invented in 1988 that is currently popular amongst programmers and hackers. To use IRC, one must connect to an IRC “network”. An IRC network consists of a collection of chatrooms called “IRC channels”. Once connected to an IRC network, users can join multiple IRC channels and begin chatting in them. Multiple public IRC networks exist, often for different purposes: for example QuakeNet attracts gamers and hosts many video game-related channels, while Freenode hosts many channels for open-source software projects.
AnonOps, VoxAnon and AnonNet, for example, are public IRC network popular amongst Anonymous participants and are used to coordinate Anonymous operations. AnonOps played the most prominent role since Operation Payback and was the host network of hundreds of operations. Every operation has its own channel – for example #operationpayback was the channel for Operation Payback and #opegypt was the channel for Operation Egypt.
Creating a new operation is as easy as creating a new channel, and creating a new channel is something anyone can do in a second by typing a single command. If the collective likes the idea for your operation, they will join your channel and your operation may gain traction. It’s as simple as that. It’s an extremely frictionless implementation of a free market of ideas – there are no forms to fill or emails to send, only a command to type.
The almost non-existent barrier to starting an operation is a catalyst for the movement within Anonymous. The vast majority of operations fail to capture the interest of the wider collective and die from a lack of momentum. But a minority of operations gain momentum, and those are often the ones that the public eventually hear about and the media reports on. Sometimes an otherwise unpopular operation gains momentum because the media reports on it for click-bait purposes.
Anonymous is often misunderstood, so misunderstood that some PhD students have recently argued that Anonymous are not activists. In the last 10 years Anonymous went from being an obscure trolling collective in the basement of the Internet to an international network of activists inspiring hundreds of operations all over the world in the past few years. It has not always been a positive force, but yet it has accomplished a great deal, from exposing the new fangled world of corporate spying with Stratfor and Operation HBGary to inspiring the imagination of many technical activists during the Arab spring.
Mustafa Al-Bassam is a former LulzSec member and Anonymous participant. He is currently 1st year Computer Science at King’s College London.