There have always been journalists and activists devoted to safeguarding the free flow of information, but the age of the Internet has brought a new set of opportunities and challenges — and a new generation of loosely affiliated online enforcers collectively known as Anonymous.
This network of so-called "hacktivists" from around the world organize operations ranging from physical protests to cyber attacks on corporate websites, involving anything from small groups carrying out someone's idea to large groups using downloaded software to launch sophisticated attacks on high-profile villains or in defense of embattled heroes.
"We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us," is a common tagline members of the group use in announcing its campaigns, often through YouTube videos and accompanied by imagery of a suit with a question mark for a head or someone wearing the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the film V for Vendetta, with its theme of the masses rising up against injustice, driven by the power of basic ideas about justice (see "Remember, remember the 5th of November," 11/1/11).
The idea of the online community rising up in collective action under the banner of Anonymous first appeared around 2003, but it really caught on and went viral in the last few years, first when Anonymous organized global protests outside Church of Scientology offices in 2008 and again at the end of 2010 when Anonymous defended Wikileaks' release of secret diplomatic cables, shutting down the websites of Visa, Amazon, PayPal, and other companies that cooperated with the U.S. government in trying to freeze Wikileaks' assets.
Here in San Francisco, Anonymous helped organize and coordinate the waves of protests directed at BART in August 2011 after the agency shut down cell phone service to try to disrupt a protest of the latest fatal shooting by a BART police officer. It was through those protests that some of the earliest organizers of Occupy San Francisco say they met and began working together, and Anonymous has shown strong support for the Occupy movement.
So, for this year's FOI Issue, we decided to chat up an Anonymous member who is active in the group's discussions on its Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels, which are hard to find and prone to being shut down whenever someone fears security has been breached. The following are excerpts from that interview:
SFBG Is there a philosophy behind the work Anonymous does?
ANON You should really ask the hive mind. We are all Anon, not just a single person. But I will answer you. There are a few things that bind all of Anon together: Justice, freedom, personal joy. We just want to live our lives normally and happily, and we believe there is a power stopping us from doing so, so we decided to band together and do something about it.
SFBG We've written a lot about Occupy and it's the same thing: Everyone can only represent themselves.
ANON Occupy is the next step, I believe. But that's just me. Occupy is the forum where people gather transferred into the real world. It's just one manifestation of the hive mind in reality. There may be another one in the future.
SFBG How is organizing with Anonymous different from organizing in the real world?
ANON Safer I suppose. Convenience. We are only at the mercy of what's out there in cyberspace. We aren't going to be beat down by a cop who has gotten drunk on power. In the real world, it's dangerous to gather in numbers. It's come to a point where even a little dissent under the First Amendment can turn you into an "enemy" of a country you love so much.