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Anonymous gets the TV treatment

We review Storyville: How Hackers Changed the World - We Are Legion
Fri Mar 15 2013, 16:00

HACKTIVIST GROUP Anonymous is more friend than foe, according to the recent documentary that appeared on the BBC, Storyville: How Hackers Changed the World - We Are Legion.

So here, Anonymous are presented as heroes, but in the eyes of the government they are something else.

Spokesman and writer Barrett Brown is facing 15 years in federal prison, and Aaron Swartz, who was not associated with Anonymous, committed suicide to avoid the ‘decades' in jail that he was threatened with by maddened authorities.

Just this week, a Reuters producer was threatened with 30 years inside just for sharing a company login. If the web is the wild west, then the sheriff has a hang 'em high policy.

The documentary paints Anonymous as Robin Hood. It is a man standing on a corner with a placard, or sitting down at a sit-in. There is an obvious bias to the documentary that favours the group, but despite there being few Anon's happy to speak on camera, it is hard to argue with the evidence presented.

Anonymous has no leader, no megalomaniac and no minions. It is a loose collective of internet users who carry out online operations, known as "ops". It is a meritocracy where ops can be started by anyone.

The documentary directed by Brian Knappenberger takes you straight into the world of Anonymous. Through the lens of his camera, it looks like a rather comfortable, if weird, place to be.

It's hard to get the histoy of Hacktivism and Anonymous into a one hour show, but I think they managed it.

Anonymous was borne out of 4Chan, an image sharing website and meme generator, and its infamous /b/ or Random board. There pretty much every post is made by someone called Anonymous. And one day "Anonymous" decided it would be fun to troll, you know, for the lulz.

Famous trolling expeditions included swarming Habbo Hotel, where groups of Anons, all dressed the same, would do things like block access to the swimming pool.

The /b/ board is not your grandma's knitting circle but one day, to carry on the theme, it did knit a rather nice pair of booties.

The first 'good' thing done in the 4Chan board was a trolling campaign against a right-wing extremist and radio presenter called Hal Turner.

The short story here, is that 4Chan decided he was a challenge, and decided to troll. It denial of service attacked his website and sent pizzas to his house. "Basically," says one interviewee identified only as 'Anonymous', "we destroyed his ability to pay for his radio show and that took him off the internet".

Let's say that Turner's life has not improved since then. Meanwhile, as Barrett Brown, the founder of Project PM, an internet think-tank that also engages in online activism, puts it, "Now, the most terrible thing on the internet is now becoming a force for good. It did something positive. That's not usually the /b/ board's way. Still, it went with it."

The scale of Anonymous was demonstrated first in 2008. The 4Chan campaign called Chanalogy came out of the discovery of a Tom Cruise Scientology clip. 4Chan had 'enjoyed' the clip, as had other websites, and was asked by Scientology to take it down.

Scientology, if you like, woke the beast, and earned itself a nemesis. But it struck back. One DDoSer earned a year in prison and a year of supervised release with no computer contact. His mum says she's "very proud" of what he did.

That's the general feel of the documentary, that people, everyday people, were doing something, anything, they could for the greater good. This Anonymous idea is a movement, borne from a hellish place, that has made a change, a good change, wherever it has swarmed to.

The second move was Op payback in support of Julian Assange, and away from Chanology. Assange, a famed hacker, founded Wikileaks. He and Anonymous shared a lot of common ground. "Truth wants to be free, and we want to liberate it," says author and talking head Richard Thieme.

Wikileaks caused controversy and payment providers Visa, Mastercard and Paypal, blocked it from their systems and its donations. Op Payback was launched from a "real sense of rage", says one mask wearer. "Anonymous DDoS'd Paypal. They were pissed," adds another.

Anonymous subjected Paypal to a denial of service attack, that the payment enabler says cost it £3.5m. The Visa and Mastercard websites were also affected, briefly. 16 people were arrested for their part in the virtual civil protest and they all look like your average neighbour.

Then Egypt turned off its internet. Anonymous, now a hydra, turned one of its heads towards the Arab Spring. "[We] helped people on the ground in those countries... [We] really showed them how to subvert their government," says another member.

"When Mubarak left, it was a 'Hell Yeah!' moment. People can rise up," he adds. "People can make a change, and I think for a lot of people in America it was the first time they has seen people rise up and take down their government and say, 'We're sick of this shit! Were sick of living as slaves to your power'."

Pete Fein, internaut and part of the Telecomix group of net activists, says that this was a revolution that was sparked by 50 years of oppression, but "facilitated by the internet". He's right. And the documentary makes a point of showing that Anonymous did help facilitate the Arab Spring.

Like them or loathe them, and Knappenberger clearly loves them, the message here is that Anonymous does want to make the world a better place. It's just going to do it in its own, sometimes very strange way.

Storyville: How Hackers Changed the World - We Are Legion is an interesting watch, but I am more keen on seeing where the story goes than where it has been. µ


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