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The World

Jan 27, 2011

Inside the hive-mind

Anonymous is supposed to be a "juvenile" "underground hate group". A look at its operations reveals a complex and thoughtful movement that is unlike traditional real-world activism.

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“Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Hillary Clinton, January 25, Washington

“When asked about the revolt in Egypt, 72% of american adults agreed that they should overthrow the current Pharaoh.” Anonymous member, #opegypt IRC, January 26,

Secretary Clinton received plenty of criticism for her statements about Egypt. That was unsurprising, given they were exactly the sort of statements you’d expect from a US administration worried one of its most reliable client regimes was facing the start of the sort of rolling series of protests that brought down another faithful US ally, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Even when the State Department later offered a slightly less pro-Mubarak view — “the United States supports the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people. All parties should exercise restraint, and we call on the Egyptian authorities to handle these protests peacefully”, it only elicited further abuse in the region and further afield.

There was plenty of that in the #opegypt IRC channel, where Anonymous’s campaign to target the Egyptian government, and provide support to Egyptian protesters, was being co-ordinated. #Opegypt had been launched two days before, to support the Egyptian protests intended for January 25 that had been organised on Facebook. It came on the heels of #opAlgeria, of which more in a moment, and of course #optunisia, which had kept up a weeks-long attack on the Ben Ali government. That regime was one of the world’s most effective internet censors, which is what had drawn Anonymous’s attention in the first place. Ben Ali’s government had, among other things, used the country’s ISPs to deploy malicious code that harvested Facebook passwords.

But interestingly, in the #opegypt channel, one Anonymous member responded to criticism of Clinton by noting that, had the State Department statement been any stronger in support of the Egyptian protests, it might have enabled critics to paint them as tools of US policy, like the Iranian dictatorship did about 2009’s protests in that country. It was a subtle point, particularly for a group described variously as “juvenile”, “domestic terrorists” (thank you Fox News) and an “underground hate group”.

But the observation smoothly fitted into an ongoing discussion about what was happening on the ground in Egypt, fury about the Egyptian government’s response, philosophical debates about the nature of anarchy, the usefulness of pizza bombs (mass-ordering of pizza deliveries — a time-honoured, and rather analog, Anonymous prank), invariably un-PC — indeed, anti-PC — jokes, and discussions of Middle Eastern politics.

All, of course, while trying to maximise the DDOS attack on Egyptian government websites, primarily via the LOIC tool on volunteer computers across the globe.

On that front, it was clear that #opegypt has so far been less successful than #opAlgeria on the weekend. #Opalgeria — timed to co-ordinate with protests in Algeria — easily took down several Algerian government websites — in fact, it seemed to take down pretty much most of the Algerian internet full stop. People joined the chat room to report the website of the Algerian airline and Algerian media sites were all down as well. Indeed, the website of the hated Algerian interior ministry was still down two days later. One participant posted instructions for exploiting a flaw in older versions of the web content management system Joomla. And on Sunday morning Australian time, having pleaded with participants not to DDOS the website of Algeria’s ruling party, administrators proudly unveiled some special handiwork — they’d defaced the site and converted it into a message from Anonymous.

Egyptian web administrators have put up a much greater fight. The two targeted sites, www.moiegypt.gov.eg and www.mcit.gov.eg, periodically went down or slowed to a near-standstill, but would spring back up, to the frustration of attack co-ordinators. As they struggled to get volunteers to join the attacks, there were also providing “care packages” (COD gamers will recognise the term) of anonymisation tools and advice to Egyptian geeks, as they had done in Tunisia and Algeria, spamming Egyptian police email, fax and phone numbers and filtering information about how to work around Egyptian censorship. The Mubarak government — evidently unconvinced by Western commentators who argue social media is no threat to dictatorships — had launched a pre-prepared plan to shut down web browserr access to Twitter, which was being used to spread information about the protests, but users found they were able to access it via applications such as  Tweetdeck, meaning those on the front line could still provide information about what was going on.

One of the issues that repeatedly came up in the #opalgeria and #opegypt channels — usually from disgruntled citizens of both countries — was why Anonymous didn’t target unfriendly media outlets rather than government websites. This goes to the very core of Anonymous’s motives and rationale. Algerians came into the channel to call for the DDOSing of a fundamentalist Islamic media site, while throughout yesterday and this morning, Egyptians demanded the targeting of Egyptian media seen as compliant with the Mubarak regime.

The demands were met with the same response every time — Anonymous is committed to free speech, regardless of who uses it, and will not target the media, no matter what they say — “no media including Fox or state run”. The media, along with educational institutions, are considered taboo in a movement where taboos are usually flagrantly violated. “You may not agree with what they say,” said one member, “but you will LOIC to the death for their right to say it.” The judgment also seems to reflect an understanding that media attention is an important tool for Anonymous. It was even when the goal was simply to bring the lulz at the expense of targets that had enraged them, and much more so now that fighting for free speech has become the central goal of a growing movement.

The other characteristic is one so subtle as to almost be unnoticeable. Anonymous operates in a wholly non-national way. Not international, but non-national. Where you are in the real world — “meatspace” — is irrelevant, except to the extent that different countries means different servers, enabling DDOS co-ordinators to keep track of whether target sites are loading or not, and because Anonymous discourages people within the relevant countries themselves from participating in DDOS attacks, since the LOIC broadcasts your IP address.

This formless, leaderless, non-national movement is evolving, maturing and (most likely) growing rapidly, especially in the Middle East. Other operations such as one against the Venezuelan government are under way. There is talk of a future #opiran, which is acknowledged as a hard target. It is an altogether more complex beast than what is portrayed in the MSM, or even by the hackers who have slammed its use of DDOS (Anonymous itself is less a group of “hackers” per se than of the cyber-literate).

It is also profoundly at odds in its ethos and methods with traditional NGOs and activist groups. This is not your traditional protest movement and elements of it would be deeply hostile to more traditional political activism. Anonymous is something that, because it grew organically in cyberspace rather than reflecting the cyber version of existing real world phenomena, looks and works differently to real-world organisations or movements we’re familiar with. Something important and new is happening here.

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