Between conspiracy and protest

The US government launched a major crackdown on the group Anonymous today, arresting five of the group’s leaders. The charges could result in some of the leaders of the group serving up to 105 years in prison.

This is how the Washington Post characterized the arrests:

“This is the most important roll-up of hackers ever,” said Richard Stiennon, a cybersecurity analyst who has closely followed Anonymous.

Stiennon said that the arrests had instilled “distrust into Anonymous” and, as a consequence, the FBI may have “broken the back of the collective.”

Members of the group, and its sympathizers, were quick to point out that Anonymous was as much an idea as an organization, and that you can not destroy an idea, and well it may be. And yet, the successful prosecution of the men arrested today would certainly be a huge deterrent to the kind hackivism practiced by Anonymous and similar groups, which got me wondering if there would be any truly effective means of political protest left should the back of the group really be broken as Stiennon seems to hope.

For me, the question is whether or not the kinds of things credited to Anonymous count as political protest or something else?

Back in the late 1990’s I was doing research for a book that came to naught (though I did end up turning it into a short piece of historical fiction that I will post with this should I ever find it). I was researching a labor strike on the Pennsylvania canal in the early 1800s and reading  a lot of newspaper articles about the event from the time period. Thing is, they always referred to what we would call a strike as a “conspiracy”. Why was that?

It seems there had been an infamous legal case in Pennsylvania back in 1806 called Commonwealth vs Pullis that had ruled that a strike by a group of Philadelphia journeymen cordwainers amounted to a conspiracy against the owners of the factories in which they worked, and that society would collapse should the principle the strikers used to justify their actions ever be taken as universal. The ruling effectively made both unions and strikes illegal throughout the early years of the 19th century.

The prosecution’s case was that:

We charge a combination, by means of rewards and punishments, threats, insults, starvings and beatings, to compel the employers to accede to terms, they the journeymen present and dictate. If the journeymen cordwainers may do this, so may the employers; the journeymen carpenters, the brick-layers, butchers, farmers, and the whole community will be formed into hostile confederacies, the prelude and certain forerunner of bloodshed and civil war.

It now rests with the jury, under the direction of the court to say, whether we shall in future be governed by secret clubs, instead of the constitution and laws of the state; a verdict of not guilty, will sanction combinations of the most dangerous kind; a contrary verdict will give the victory to the known and established laws of the commonwealth.

No doubt, the US government’s case against Anonymous will argue similarly: that the actions of the group in no way represent legitimate political protests, and to argue otherwise would amount to inviting “cyber-chaos”.

Surely, if one looks over many of the actions credited to Anonymous many of them are juvenile, and perhaps even criminal. Yet, in an age in which elites hide behind security fortresses to shield themselves from public protests, and an amazing protest movement such as OWS can emerge overnight, only to disappear just as quickly, hacktivism, of the sort practiced by Anonymous is one of the few means of democratic protest that actually bite, which is the reason why the reactions by authorities has been so strong against groups like Wikileaks and Anonymous.

One wonders what leverage citizens will have should governments be able to treat all such actions, regardless of their political aspect, as conspiracies and sentence hacktivist to a century in prison.

One comment on “Between conspiracy and protest

  1. […] Such was the case in Tunisia during its revolution in 2011 where the state was able to leverage the power of a commercial company- FaceBook- to spy on its citizens. Of course, resistance is fought through the Internet as well. As Parmy Olson points out in her We Are Anonymous it was not the actions of the US government but one of the most politically motivated of the members of the hacktivist groups Anonymous and LulzSec, a man with the moniker “Sabu” who later turned FBI informant that was able to launch a pushback of this authoritarian takeover of the Internet. Evidence if there ever was any of that hacktivism even when using Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDOS) can be a legitimate form of political speech […]

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