Anonymous: SOPA, Digilantes and Hacktivism

By Beatty Jamieson

In January much of the Internet world rejoiced as congressional proponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act (and its Senate counterpart, the Protect Internet Provider Act) were forced to regroup under a deluge of negative feedback from constituents. However, SOPA and PIPA are not dead. As file-sharing and copyright infringement continue to evolve along with the Internet, they will be back someday in one form or another.

The battle fought over SOPA and PIPA is merely the latest round in the struggle to balance freedom and intellectual property rights. In 2001, it was the RIAA and music labels suing Napster, but over the last decade with the adoption of broadband Internet, bit torrents, and video streaming sites (Megavideo, Sidereel, etc), the MPAA and movie studios have joined in the fight to control the Internet. They’ve tried suing users, but that didn’t have much effect. Now they’re back to taking down the sites that distribute the copyrighted content.

Critics claim SOPA and PIPA infringe on the collaborative, innovative nature of the Internet. This is one of the fastest growing industries in America, and SOPA and PIPA, which would allow copyright holders near unfettered ability to shut down a whole website with just the claim that the site hosts copyrighted material. A single user uploading an unauthorized clip to YouTube could, under these laws, get the entire site shut down without anything resembling due process.

Google Censored Sopa Pipa Web blackout

For those that may have missed it, digital heavyweights like Google, Wikipedia, and Craigslist all mounted protests of different sorts, with all but Google replacing their site with a blackout page explaining the bills and why they opposed them. Google covered their search page logo with a black bar, but still allowed people to search.

As if in response to the SOPA/PIPA blackout protests, the FBI took down MegaUpload, arrested four employees and began seizing the property of MegaUpload founder Kim Dotcom, aka Kim Shmitz. It sent a shock through the content consuming, copyright infringing community on the web. For those that thought the days of the RIAA and MPAA attempting to control the Internet died along with Napster and Limewire, it came as a rude awakening.

But where Google and others tried their hands at nonviolent resistance, the infamous hacker group ‘Anonymous’ stepped in and retaliated with a ‘denial of service’ style attack (DDos) on entertainment industry groups the RIAA and MPAA, the Department of Justice, the FBI, Warner Bros Music, and, some rumors say, the official White House page.

Anonymous

True, the counterattack only temporarily took down the websites and some compared Anonymous’ actions to vandalizing McDonald’s signs, but these events are more significant than they appear. As suspected criminals like Shmitz and overly aggressive law enforcement battle it out over the Internet, everyday surfers are caught in the crossfire.

Several years ago the cable provider Comcast began metering Internet usage of their customers. Now a Comcast customer only has 250 gigs of bandwidth each month to use no matter how fast the Internet speed is they purchased. Comcast’s reasoning was users were abusing their bandwidth and slowing the network for everyone else, but as more entertainment can be legally enjoyed online through streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, Netflix, and Hulu, innocent people are impacted by having their Internet throttled or cut off.

Because Shmitz made millions by infringing on copyrighted material, everyone on the Internet faces the risk of having their freedom of communication and access to information taken away by SOPA, PIPA, and the nearly global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which President Obama signed with little fanfare in this country, but has raised a SOPA-like stink abroad for its far-reaching powers and limited transparency.

Too often we are forced to pick sides on issues and either be for or against an issue such as this. You can think of Anonymous as a group of cyberbullies or guardians, terrorists or freedom fighters of the online arena. However, it might be more appropriate to call them vigilantes, who operate in the vast gray area between criminals and heroes. A vigilante is a person, by themselves or belonging to a group, that legally and illegally punishes criminals. They see themselves as not needing to conform to the law because legal agencies are inadequate. In the past, vigilantes existed in the streets as Guardian Angels, in comic books as Batman, but now they exist on the web as Anonymous.

Looking at this exchange of protests and reprisals, vigilantism and rebellion, it is oddly fascinating to see these old roles in society find their new homes on the Internet. The traditional questions of freedom and security, of protection and creation, have migrated to a world where information multiplies and coalesces as fast as thought. Keep your eye on SOPA, PIPA, and Anonymous; they are a sign of struggles to come.

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