Yesterday, the FBI finally took action in relation to the events around Wikileaks’s release of leaked diplomatic cables. So did the British police, working in concert with them.

Only, it wasn’t Julian Assange hauled up for extradition to the US on charges under the Espionage Act, it was a group of teens arrested for participating in Anonymous’s distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks against Visa, Mastercard and PayPal. To the delight of Anonymous’s many opponents, five people were arrested in the UK – all later bailed – and 40 search warrants executed by the FBI in the United States, including in apparently fairly indiscriminate circumstances.

The FBI released a statement warning that DDOS attacks were punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment and that European law enforcement officials were conducting their own investigations. Two Dutch teens were arrested in December.

The DDOS attacks were undertaken by Anonymous in early December in response to Visa, Mastercard and PayPal cutting off the flow of public donations to Wikileaks, as part of a US Government-inspired wave of corporate hostility toward Wikileaks.

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The arrests were obviously and correctly overshadowed by events in Egypt, where young men and women have faced a lot worse than arrest over the last 72 hours. Nonetheless, they shine a light on a number of issues, few of them overly favourable to the US Government and its allies.

First, apart from the continuing detention without trial of PFC Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker of the cables, at a Marine base in Virginia, this is the first law enforcement action US authorities have been able to take that is even faintly connected to Wikileaks. This is despite some very strong initial claims about Wikileaks: the allegations that the organisation had endangered lives and damaged US interests – claims since acknowledged to be false; the description of Julian Assange as a “high tech terrorist” by Vice President Biden, chiming with the claim of some right-wing figures that Assange should be hunted down or killed; leaders of US vassal states like Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard declaring Wikileaks “illegal”, and the convening of a secret grand jury in Virginia for the purposes of establishing what charges could be brought against Wikileaks.

At this rate, some Anon teens – erroneously described in some outlets as “Wikileaks hackers” when in fact they’re very likely to be neither – may well be all that authorities can muster. Last week, NBC reported that US military investigators had admitted they couldn’t manage the first step in establishing a criminal case against Wikileaks – linking Assange directly to PFC Manning when he allegedly leaked the cables.

Second, nearly two months on from the DDOS attacks, it remains the case that Visa, Mastercard and PayPal have never satisfactorily explained their decision to blacklist Wikileaks. Indeed, PayPal actually changed its story on why it did so. Visa even commissioned a report on legal issues surrounding Wikileaks but, despite it clearing the organisation, the company has still not lifted its ban on payments.

This is most likely because the legal issue is a furphy. As Crikey showed in December, Visa, Mastercard and PayPal all enable payments to be made by Zionist organisations to fund illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank – illegal under international law and in some cases even illegal under Israeli law. The Guardian also revealed that Visa and Mastercard enabled payments to the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.

Third, DDOSing has sparked an interesting debate within what might, misleadingly and unhelpfully, be termed the online activist community.  DDOS attacks have been compared – perhaps most notably by veteran IT activist Richard Stallman – to sit-ins, linking them firmly to a long tradition of non-violent protest action.  Net Delusion author and critic of “cyber-utopianism”, Evgeny Morozov has also – surprisingly – defended DDOS attacks as potentially legitimate, depending on the circumstances.

This has been challenged by other high-profile online figures like Cory Doctorow on the basis that DDOS is ostensibly anonymous and bears none of the personal consequences of a sit-in or other forms of public action, where you can be arrested and publicly embarrassed.

The DDOS attacks did indeed serve a similar purpose to sit-ins. They significantly raised awareness of the actions of Visa, Mastercard and PayPal, which may well have been lost in the Wikileaks media mix without the dramatic disruptions caused by Anonymous’s response. PayPal also released a considerable sum of donations to Wikileaks shortly after the attacks.

Not surprisingly, Anonymous itself has adopted the Stallman line in its response to the arrests, saying “arresting somebody for taking part in a DDoS attack is exactly like arresting somebody for attending a peaceful demonstration in their hometown.”

The flaw in Anonymous’s argument is that when one elects to take part in a demonstration, one accepts the legal consequences. If the demonstration is a perfectly legal street march, no consequences (should) ensue. But if it’s a sit-in that disrupts a business or traffic, one is liable to being physically handled or arrested. Plainly DDOS attacks are closer to the latter than the former.

This is the basic social contract around the rule of law for protestors: individuals don’t get to pick and choose which laws they are bound by and which they aren’t, even if their goal is to change the law or expose injustice. Whether someone who participated in a DDOS attack knew they were exposing themselves to arrest or not (bearing in mind the most widely-used DDOS tool, Low Orbit Ion Cannon, does nothing to hide your IP address), they face the consequences of that social contract: DDOSing is illegal.

Anonymous’s response to the arrests is on stronger ground when they correctly observe that there’s been a strange silence around denial-of-service attacks on Wikileaks itself, for which responsibility has been claimed by an American online activist and self-described supporter of free speech. This doesn’t seem to have interested the US law enforcement officials who were happy to raid college dorms looking for Anonymous-related material.  Further, as the group notes, DDOS attacks are a relatively minor, temporary disruption, just like a “meatspace” sit-in, and threats of a decade in gaol are grossly disproportionate to the actual offence.  In fact, the Anons may be all the more aggressively prosecuted if they’re the only targets on which an angry and embarrassed US Government can lay hands in the aftermath of Wikileaks.

But there’s a broader dimension to the social contract issue. In accepting the rule of law – and therefore the consequences of purposefully undertaking illegal activities – it helps if the lawful authority itself accepts the same limits on its own actions.

This is plainly not the case in relation to the US Government. The Obama Adminstration, which began with such high hopes of a genuine change from the Bush years, frequently appears indistinguishable from its predecessor in its casual attitude toward the rule of law in matters large-scale and small. For example, it has:

  • declined to investigate Bush Administration officials who oversaw the illegal (need it be said) torture of non-US citizens;
  • itself overseen the torture of a US citizen, Gulet Mohamed, in Kuwait;
  • killed hundreds of civilian through its use of drones to undertake extra-judicial killings of alleged Taliban figures in Pakistan;
  • its draconian aviation security agency has tried – and, fortunately, failed – to prosecute Americans exercising their most basic rights at airports;
  • it has pursued and harassed a Wikileaks associate, net activist Jacob Applebaum, subjecting him to extensive searches at airports and taking electronic equipment from him (usually known as theft, but apparently OK when US federal officials do it).
  • it has even, as part of its so-far fruitless efforts to find a way to prosecute Wikileaks, issued a subpoena directed at an MP of another country.

As with the previous administration, for the Obama Administration, extra-legal and illegal actions are not merely an accidental consequence of the implementation of otherwise legal policy, but a deliberate choice. This is all the more the case when it is reinforced by political support for, and extensive funding of, the illegal actions of client state dictators like Hosni Mubarak, who has only finally come under American pressure this weekend when the brutal and illegal nature of his regime could no longer be hidden (including, of course, with a timely release of Wikileaks cables relating to Egypt).

That changes the moral, if not strict legal, equation when it comes to the rule of law and those choosing to protest against it.

But DDOS is only one tool used by Anonymous, and may in the future not even be its primary one. With Hosni Mubarak’s decision to shut down the Internet and mobile phone services in Egypt, Anonymous’s tactic of DDOSing Egyptian Government websites was rendered moot. While some continued to point their LOICs at Egyptian Embassy sites around the globe, efforts within the group quickly switched to more analog tactics. While faxes were originally being used to spam Egyptian police stations, Anonymous’s #OpEgypt group switched to mass-faxing Wikileaks cables about Egypt into the country to ensure their dissemination. They provided information and anonymisation tools for the small proportion of Egyptians who managed to stay online, as well as trying to find internet connections that still functioned inside the country, and digging up information on dial-up internet services and what must have seemed like the antediluvian technology of ham radio in order to disseminate information.

Similar tasks were also admirably taken on by others like the European group Telecomix, the Huffington Post and Applebaum, who has done outstanding work tracking the Mubarak shutdown and ways to respond to it, all part of a broader determination to ensure Egyptians were not abandoned and cut off.

In fact, as Friday night progressed and Mubarak’s communications blackout remained in place, the mood among some #OpEgypt members toward DDOS seemed to turn hostile, particularly when others urged attacks on Vodafone (for its role in shutting down mobile services) and the British police in response to the arrests. “DDOS addicts give anon a bad name. quit blindly asking for targets that will come after you such as scotland yard,” urged one member.

This debate over tactics is another variation of a much wider argument over the meaning of social media and the internet in these Northern African revolutions, in which both critics of and enthusiasts for social media obsess over software and platforms rather than the people using them and what they can be used for. The software is only important to the extent that it enables collaboration between like-minded activists, potentially on a global scale, and that has been demonstrated first in Tunisia and now in Egypt, even when some of the tools of collaboration are removed by a desperate regime. Anonymous itself put it succinctly in a recent media release that, once you look past the rhetoric and sexist terminology, describes exactly the nature of what it has been engaged in. “The means by which humans may collaborate has exploded – not expanded, not increased, but exploded – in such a way as to allow any man on earth to talk and work with any other man.”

Anonymous, like social media itself, has been criticized as representing armchair activism, in which participants expose themselves to no threat or danger, or for that matter even inconvenience, while earning the warm inner glow of Doing Something that has no real-world consequences. That some Anonymous members may have found themselves under arrest undermines the notion that there’s no risk involved.

More to the point, though, in the right circumstances, mobilizing “armchair activists” can prove important. No one has suggested online action alone will achieve anything. And people in the West can’t join the men and women demonstrating and dying in the streets of Cairo. But they can push their own governments to take action, they can pressure the Western media to focus on what’s happening (rather than leaving all the heavy lifting to Al Jazeera English), they can support those demonstrating by developing ways to keep communications open so that dictators can’t act with impunity, and they can raise awareness about those companies and governments that support dictatorial regimes.

All this taps resources never before available on such a scale to people struggling for their freedom. And it is not technology, software or media platforms that provide the resources, but the collaboration and connections across the globe that they enable.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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