Online activism continues to evolve rapidly, as events over the last week have demonstrated.

When I first wrote in detail about Anonymous last year, following the DDOS attacks on Visa, Mastercard and PayPal, I suggested that, as a native online entity (and even “entity” suggests a coherence that isn’t quite accurate), it was a different form of activism from what we’re used to. Anonymous, of course, has a significant history predating WikiLeaks, stretching all the way back to its declaration of war on the Scientology cult in 2008, the equivalent of a couple of decades in meatspace time. But since December, it has evolved rapidly via attempts to assist the Arab Spring and, increasingly, a war against corporate America and the US government.

The consequences of the DDOS attacks in December were still being felt last week when the FBI announced on July 19 the arrest of a 14 Anons for participation in the DDOS attack on PayPal (I’ve canvassed the analogy of DDOS attacks to “digital sit-ins” previously). The DDOS attacks were launched using Low Orbit Ion Cannon, a modified piece of stress-testing software that can be downloaded and either operated manually or run remotely.

The problem with LOIC is it broadcasts your IP address when you use it and can’t be used via normal anonymisation tools, and the FBI has been using PayPal’s data on IP addresses responsible for most of the traffic during the attacks. But the connection between IP addresses and individuals is a tricky one. One of those arrested, Garrett Deming, fronts a rock band and professes to be nearly computer illiterate — so illiterate he ran an unsecured wireless network in an apartment building, which any number of people could have used. The working assumption is that the arrests are designed to intimidate suspects into revealing what they know about higher-level Anons. Good luck with that.

The arrest that generated more headlines, however, was that of an alleged member of Lulzsec, Topiary, on the Shetland Islands, an impressively remote location from which to be participating in a global spree of online mischief-making. Lulzsec had a decidedly different ethos to Anonymous — whereas Anonymous baulked at attacking any media outlet, even those run by Middle-Eastern dictatorships, because free speech is about the closest anything comes to being a core value for such a disparate movement, Lulzsec considered nothing off limits in its quest to embarrass the claims of cyber security by corporations and governments. Websites operated by PBS, Fox and, most famously, News International were all either raided for user names and passwords or defaced, or taken offline.

Whether the arrested individual is indeed Topiary remains to be seen — there’s a claim that Lulzsec fed misinformation to the UK police leading to the arrest of the wrong person, and the profile of the arrested suspect indeed doesn’t fit the information released by Lulzsec’s array of online enemies purporting to reveal the identities of Topiary and other Lulzsec members.

Whatever the case, it’s now plain — or should be plain — that online activism isn’t the anonymous and risk-free activity that many appear to have assumed that it was back in the bright days of December, when participants likened the DDOS attacks to being in a “geek action movie”, or that critics have insisted it is, compared to “real world” activism. There’s been a concomitant switch in tactics across Anonymous. DDOS attacks are no longer the go-to weapon, except for foreign government websites where the risk of FBI arrest (and a trip in the famous party van) is minimal.

This week, instead, Anonymous launched #oppaypal, intended as a more direct strike back at the company by encouraging people to close their PayPal accounts and donate any unspent money to charity. Anonymous claimed 35,000 accounts had been closed as a result, and that PayPal had amended its website to make it more difficult for people to find out how to close their accounts, although neither claim could be verified. PayPal claims to have more than 100 million accounts (which itself can’t be verified), meaning Anonymous has some distance to go to inconvenience the company.

The significance of #opPayPal, however, may lie less in making life difficult for PayPal or undermining its share price than in driving several tens of thousands of active online users to other web payment companies such as Moneybookers, Liberty Reserve and of course BitCoin, which has already has a storied history of wild price swings and froth-mouthed congressmen railing against its use for drug purchases. One of the emerging themes of online activism is resistance to centralised or highly corporatised forms of online control, which, in addition to being contrary to the centrifugal ethos of the internet, directly enable governments and large companies to exercise power — such as, for example, the capacity of Visa, Mastercard and PayPal to (possibly illegally) shut down donations to WikiLeaks and Amazon to shut down server capacity for it.

The support of a highly competitive market across online services and resistance to online oligopolies or monopolies is thus becoming an important goal of online activism. Curiouser and curiouser.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey