Anonymous And The War Over The Internet (Part II)

This is the second part of a two-part series on Anonymous, the amorphous Internet group that has emerged as a force in global affairs. In the first part, we track Anonymous' transition from pranks to politics. In this installment, we learn about its war on the government. You can read part one of the series here.

If Anonymous spans the moral range between the idealistic revolutionary and the nihilistic imp, Phoenix stands all the way at the idealistic end. His base of operations is a network of chat rooms called AnonOps, which birthed many of the overtly political attacks that have made Anonymous a front-page story during the last two years.

In the early days, anons were mostly self-proclaimed jerks who joked around on the website 4chan and played mean-spirited pranks on people for the hell of it. But in 2008, a prank on Scientology turned into a semi-serious protest movement, and some anons found themselves taking on the traditional roles of activists -- organizing demonstrations, gathering information, printing up fliers. By 2010, when Phoenix saw a news program about how anons had tracked down and harassed some woman who'd tossed a kitten into a Dumpster without noticing the overhead surveillance camera, Anonymous had begun to attract people who saw themselves as the good guys. Like many other anons who showed up around then, Phoenix came armed with an arsenal of political opinions. He said he'd been fascinated by politics since he was a kid, having grown up in a country deeply colored by its history of rebellion against the British Empire.

All of my conversations with Phoenix took place online, mostly in the AnonOps chat rooms, and we'd speak late at night, usually after he got home from hanging out with his college friends. He said these friends knew nothing of his shadow life in Anonymous, while his friends in Anonymous knew hardly anything about his life outside of it. Anonymous was a kind of utopia, he said, "a complete meritocracy" in which it was "impossible to discriminate against people based on superficial qualities because they don't exist when all you can see are their words."

(Click here to view an infographic charting the evolution of 'Anonymous'.)

He was a real romantic, and when he talked about the movement you could almost hear echoes of the anti-imperialist oratory of his ancestors. "The fact is that the internet is central to a lot of people's way of life," he said, "and for many Anons, a government attempt to restrict it is literally like an invasion of their territory."

Indeed, as he and many others saw it, Anonymous was fighting a "full scale information war" against the government-corporate complex over the future of the Internet. For years, the online world had been their "Wild West," to use one of Phoenix's analogies. The authorities had little power over it, and every dude and lady could write his or her own story: a nerd could reinvent himself as a bully, a chat-room cowboy with unusual sexual proclivities or a sick sense of humor could express himself without fear of social rejection.

Then the lawmakers came along with their anti-piracy bills -- their SOPAs, their PIPAs -- talking about the need to protect the big entertainment companies from copyright infringement. To the ears of Phoenix and many other anons, this sounded like, "We're going to conquer the Internet and subjugate its people." Today, the thinking went, the government might be chasing pirates; tomorrow, it might use its expanded powers to silence anyone it didn't like. So Anonymous rose up, and for several months, starting in late 2010, AnonOps had led the insurrection.

Phoenix, a talented writer with the aesthetic sensibility of some sort of Internet-rebel troubadour, contributed to the propaganda effort. For those who haven't seen the iconic Anonymous "Message" videos, they tend to feature made-for-Hollywood montages of disturbing imagery -- cops flailing their clubs, cars consumed by fire -- accompanied by a robot voice declaring cyber-war on governments and various other adversaries, typically concluding with some version of the following: "We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us."

In a video Phoenix sent me, a sort of AnonOps founding document, the writers had modified the tagline to crystallize the network's mission: "We do not forgive Internet censorship, and we do not forget free speech."


This current fight over Internet censorship dates at least to 2008, when U.S. officials, members of the European Union and a handful of other nations began private negotiations over an international treaty aimed at curbing the spread of piracy. File-sharing had exploded in the previous decade, and the entertainment lobby had long been pressuring the U.S. government to do something about it.

According a report by the Record Industry Association of America in 2009, music sales in the U.S. had dropped by almost 50 percent in the decade since the emergence of the file-sharing website Napster. As of this year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, piracy costs the U.S. economy more than 300,000 jobs annually, though that seems a little high.

The idea behind the treaty, known as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement or ACTA, was that if the world’s governments could standardize their laws, they’d gain an advantage over the pirates. But the atmosphere of secrecy that surrounded the international talks led many in the tech world, including major players like Google, to charge that the government was more interested in ratcheting up its control of the Internet. (This criticism was more or less echoed during the recent outcry over similar legislation in the U.S. Congress.) Nevertheless, the United States and six other countries have signed the treaty and several others are considering joining them.

When an entertainment company suspects a person or website of engaging in piracy, they threaten legal action and demand that the offenders take down the stolen property. Rather then send out these "takedown" notices themselves, they often pass the job on to contractors, some of whom call themselves "web sheriffs," a label that fits in nicely with Phoenix's wild-west metaphor, though the more appropriate comparison might be to the Pinkertons.

In 2010, one such contractor, an employee of an Indian company called AiPlex, admitted in an interview that the firm had carried out Anonymous-style Distributed Denial of Service attacks against websites suspected of posting links to pirated material. This admission prompted a rumor that Hollywood companies had essentially ordered the attacks, and although both the MPAA and RIAA denied having done so, the damage had been done. "A wave of rage swept through the Anon community," Phoenix told me, and "a call to arms was quickly established."

Anons brought down the websites of AiPlex, the MPAA and the RIAA. Around the same time, they also hacked into several email servers, establishing the three-pronged modus operandi of the escalating war: (1) shut down websites, (2) expose emails (preferably embarrassing ones), (3) LOL. As in the early days of 4chan, the Internet nerd was using the tactics of the jerk against the self-important blowhard, except this time the blowhard was the corporate-state apparatus.

Of course, not everyone thought of Anonymous as the good guys, and as the anti-censorship anons waged war, they found themselves struggling to fend off attacks from unknown enemies who kept bringing down the servers that housed their networks. Some anons suspected those web sheriffs and other Internet mercenaries hired by the corporate opposition. (The MPAA and the RIAA both say they had nothing to do with these attacks, either, and stress that if anyone is a threat to free speech, it’s people who do carry out illegal attacks on websites, like anons.)

And then came Nov. 28, 2010, the day a hacker-turned-activist named Julian Assange and a shaky alliance of major media companies opened a new front in the information war by publishing a stash of U.S. diplomatic cables leaked to Assange and his website, WikiLeaks. This episode, and a specific sequence of events linked to it, led to what many in Anonymous hailed as the movement’s most glorious moment.

The day before those WikiLeaks documents went public, the U.S. State Department wrote a letter to Assange warning that if he allowed their publication he'd be breaking the law and endangering the lives of "countless innocent individuals -- from journalists to human rights activists and bloggers to soldiers to individuals providing information to further peace and security." About a week later, a cohort of financial-services companies announced they would block donations to WikiLeaks, cutting off a vital source of funding. To anons, the whole thing smelled of government meddling. A top executive at PayPal seemed to confirm this when he attributed the company’s decision to the influence of the State Department letter.

Another call went out to 4chan, the Anonymous mothership, summoning people to AnonOps for an "epic raid." But when Phoenix left for class that morning, he told me, the chat room for the operation only had about 150 people in it, so when he got home that night he didn't bother going online.

Instead he made some toast and marmalade and turned on the news. The top story: a certain shadowy collective of Internet hackers takes down MasterCard and Visa. "I distinctly remember knocking over my glass of water when I heard that," he said. He raced to his computer and was amazed to find that more than 6,000 people had answered the call.

Meanwhile, in a house in the Boston suburbs with about five times as many computers as people, Gregg Housh -- former Internet pirate, current unofficial Anonymous media guy -- answered his ringing phone. CNN wanted to know what was going on. Ditto The New York Times. Ditto a couple Indian newspapers. Ditto a seemingly endless parade of other outlets.

Anonymous had entered a new phase. It had shown the world that if "you screw with the Internet, the Internet screws with you," Phoenix said. And it had shown itself that the world was paying attention.


That winter, several governments made a speciality of screwing with the Internet. One was Tunisia, where the ruling regime had been especially damaged by the WikiLeaks cables. In one particularly vivid dispatch, a diplomat with an eye for irony noted that while ordinary Tunisians struggled to feed their families, the president’s family ate ice cream flown in by private plane from Saint-Tropez.

The Tunisian government responded by blocking WikiLeaks, a move that fell considerably short of quelling the anger of an impoverished citizenry already on the verge of revolt. Three weeks later, a 26-year-old fruit vendor set himself on fire in the town center of Sidi Bouzid. By the time the outrage spilled into the streets, some tech-savvy Tunisians had found their way to AnonOps.

One woman who described herself as an "observer" of AnonOps wrote to me with an account of what happened next. At first, she wrote, anons concentrated on trying to draw attention to the protests through their connections to the mainstream U.S. media, an endeavor that met with little success. Then the Tunisian government shut down the Internet. "And the people on the Internet sort of waged a shitstorm," she said.

Some anons who had never heard of Tunisia began referring to the country's citizens as their brothers. They put together "care packages" in .zip files: software that allowed protesters to circumvent Internet blocks; guides on how to treat broken arms and lost eyes; links that brought protesters into the network, where they could ask for help or post videos of the state police beating and shooting protesters.

The observer said the videos deeply disturbed her. "You see a five-year-old old get shot in the head and his neighbor was the one who was recording it," she said. "And his neighbor, a man who watched that kid grow, is the one pleading with you to please help." Watching that kind of violence left her ashamed of humanity, she said, and she'd considered herself hardened to some pretty disgusting things. After all, she said, "I go to 4chan."

The excitement of the Arab Spring held the attention of AnonOps through the winter, but the focus widened in February when someone told a reporter that he had infiltrated Anonymous and identified its "leaders."

Aaron Barr was the head of HBGary Federal, a new company that specialized in what he called social-media intelligence analysis -- gathering information about people from Facebook and Twitter. A former Navy cryptographer, he had developed a theory that he hoped to exploit in the private sector. He believed that "threat groups" like the Russian Business Network and al Qaeda attempted to spy on members of the U.S. intelligence community using social media (yes, the CIA is on Facebook), and that the intelligence community could in turn use such tools to penetrate the threat groups. He intended to sell his services as a consultant to the highest bidder.

To make his way into Anonymous, Barr created a social-media avatar named Julian Goodspeak. Enamored of a certain indestructible secret agent with well-defined feelings on martini preparation, Barr says he chose "Goodspeak" because it sounded like a name from a spy novel. "Julian" was a nod to Mr. Assange.

Barr insists he spied on Anonymous merely to prove his point about the ease of gathering intelligence about people through social media and never meant to share his information with the authorities. Anons didn't buy it. A small subgroup of hackers snuck into his company's servers and stole some 70,000 emails.

They say he got most of his information wrong. He says he accepts that "as a possibility." In any event, they went ahead and posted the entire trove online, along with his address, phone number and other personal information. "We had people driving by my house taking pictures," Barr told me. "A couple people coming up to my door with cameras in their hands. I was seriously, honestly concerned about my family's safety."

He left his job ("not in disgrace," he said) and moved his family to another location. Anonymous, meanwhile, pored over the emails and discovered what they believed was some of the most compelling evidence they'd ever seen of governments and corporations colluding to control the flow of online information. In November, their old pal Assange had said he planned to "take down" a major American bank, and two days later, the Bank of America lawyered up, retaining the services of Hunton & Williams, a Washington firm that apparently had some useful connections in the federal government. According to one of the emails exposed by Anonymous, the Justice Department had played matchmaker between the lawyers and the bank. The same email said that the Department had advised the bank to hire Barr's company. (The Justice Department declined to comment.)

In another email, anons found a PowerPoint presentation called "The WikiLeaks Threat." As it turned out, Barr's company and two others with similar profiles had pitched Hunton & Williams some ideas on how to handle Assange. In the most widely discussed of the slides, Barr vaguely suggested "disrupting" journalists who support Assange, singling out Glenn Greenwald of Salon. "Without the support of people like Glenn, Wikileaks would fold," he wrote.

In another pitch to the law firm, Barr said he'd dug up personal information on employees of left-wing organizations that oppose the Chamber of Commerce, naming a synagogue attended by one of them and identifying some family members of another. He says he did this merely to demonstrate his skill and never imagined the information would go public. But when the organizations found out about it they made a lot of noise, and a group of Democrats in Congress, led by Hank Johnson of Georgia, sent a letter to the Republican heads of four committees asking them to look into "possible illegal actions against citizens engaged in free speech."

The Republicans turned them down. Claude Chafin, a spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee, told me that the matter fell outside the group's jurisdiction; representatives of the other committees have yet to provide an explanation. Barr, for his part, explains their decisions by stressing that he broke no law and never saw a cent of the government's money. When I called Johnson, he said, "It appears that the reason why we're not having any investigations is that that would perhaps anger the people with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and it probably is just something that nobody wants to touch."

This fall, I spoke with Barrett Brown, a journalist who followed Anonymous for years before leaping off the perch of reportorial objectivity and into the story. He believes that Barr's emails offer a revelatory glimpse into the murky world of private espionage, a $2 billion industry comprising more than 9,000 companies. After the hack, he set up a website where people could search the emails and report their findings. They didn't find anything illegal, per se, but they did learn of an Air Force plan to manufacture an entire army of Julian Goodspeaks.

I spoke to Brown on video chat. He was serious and unsmiling and sounded like a philosophy professor, dropping references to Plato and ninth-century Baghdad. He said he was outraged that the Justice Department appeared to have acted as Bank of America's in-house counsel. "The fact that that happened and won't get a lot outcry shows that the republic is already over," he said.

Not that he saw this as such a bad thing, necessarily. A couple years ago, in a blog on The Huffington Post, Brown argued that the rapid spread of the Internet was effectively erasing national boundaries and would soon usher in the dawn of a new era, one in which the people of the world would transfer their allegiances from traditional nation-states to online communities that actually protected their interests. He cited the emergence of Anonymous as a sign of the changing times. "Some people call it the rise of the nerds," he said.

For what it was worth, he preferred the term "online actors," which turned out to be a rare area of agreement between him and the authorities. Last spring, in a report on the mounting security challenges of the information age, NATO had named Anonymous as an important new actor on "the international stage." More specifically, it warned that Anonymous might soon develop the capability of breaking into government networks and stealing sensitive documents.

Anonymous responded by breaking into NATO's network and stealing sensitive documents.


The Barr affair had reinfused Anonymous with some of its old lifeblood: the lulz. The way anons saw it, Barr had "poked the bear," and the bear was only too happy to have an opportunity for some good old-fashioned mauling. After stealing his emails and shutting down his website, the hackers wiped his iPad and iPhone, circulated a picture of him dressed up as the Hulk for an evening of trick-or-treating with one of his kids, and somehow broke into his Twitter account, where they looked up Justin Bieber and Hitler and clicked "follow." As they say on the Internet, "Ha ha."

For as long as the spotlight had been on AnonOps, the media had largely portrayed Anonymous as well-meaning "hacktivists," but some observers now began to pick up on the notes of malevolent snickering mixed in with the trumpet blasts of idealistic rhetoric. Some of the hackers who had carried out the attack splintered off into their own crew, LulzSec, and in addition to setting their sights on police departments and other familiar foes of the anarchist, they went after seemingly inoffensive companies like Nintendo, and even exposed the names of subscribers to a pornography website. Anons, on the whole, do not disapprove of pornography, but it seems that the "lol" factor, as one member of LulzSec put it to me, was too delicious to resist. "Exposing people's adult activities to the public, and even their families," he said. "What could be better?"

The formation of LulzSec coincided with a "civil war" in AnonOps, which broke out when some of the anons who moderated the channels demoted a moderator named Ryan Cleary, the owner of one of the network's key servers. A volatile teenager, Cleary disconnected the server, throwing the network into chaos. A few months later the London police arrested him for his involvement in attacks against some of the usual anti-piracy foes and Britain's Serious Organized Crime Agency. When they showed up to the house where he lived with his mother, they found tinfoil covering his window. His mother told the press that he hadn't left his room for six months, except to go to the bathroom.

Over the summer, another fight erupted when a moderator upset several others by talking about his attraction to underage boys. They temporarily banned him from the chat room, and some anons left the network in disgust. They felt it had had betrayed its commitment to free speech.

The community was falling apart, destroying itself in a fight over control of the Internet, of all things. A series of arrests had put everyone on edge -- Phoenix said he barely slept for two weeks -- and then a blitz of DDoS attacks from unknown enemies shut down AnonOps for weeks. By the time the network resurfaced in September, months had gone by without a decent raid.

The network’s traffic plummeted. On a good night this winter, the most crowded chat room in AnonOps would draw perhaps only 200 people. In its heyday a little over a year ago, an ordinary night drew 30 times that number.

Several people complained to me that AnonOps had seen its best days, but when I repeated this to Phoenix, he said he wasn't worried. Anonymous, he said, is like a pool of sulphur boiling under the hills of Wyoming. "It lies dormant for weeks," he said. "You know it's done big things in the past, but you can never tell exactly when it will suddenly rise up and unleash a wave of rage."

This was three weeks before the Department of Justice bust and the massive attack that followed.