The online hacking organization known as “Anonymous” is causing stir all over the internet.
The SOPA bill spurred the largest online protest in history and, according to Sopastrike.com, two days after the backlash it was put on hold indefinitely. While Internet giants such as Wikipedia, Google and Tumblr played a major role in bringing down the bill, members of Anonymous were working furiously against the websites of SOPA supporters.
Anonymous originated in 2003 in forums such as 4chan and Internet Relay Chat rooms, according to a Sept. 16 NPR article. In 2008, Anonymous launched its first major attack against the Church of Scientology.
Most recently, Anonymous launched “Operation Payback” in response to U.S. Justice Department’s recent takedown of Megaupload, a popular file-sharing website that contained pirated material, according to a Jan. 19 Huffington Post article. Anonymous took down both the Justice Department’s website and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website.
Anonymous’ attacks came in the form of distributed denial of service attacks, referred to as “DDoS attacks,” in which a website is flooded with so many requests that it cannot load, a Jan. 20 CNN article states.
THE ART OF ANONYMOUS
Azer Bestavros, a professor in Boston University’s computer science department and the founding director of BU Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science and Engineering, said the distributed denial of service attacks can be compared to 1,000 people waiting in one line. Because a server can’t handle so many requests, no one can get through.
“When an attack is not ‘distributed’ there’s the same request from one super computer, so the server recognizes it as an adversary and blacklists it,” Bestavros said. “When an attack is distributed, requests are coming from 1,000 different places. That’s where Anonymous comes in. Each person is one soldier in an army, allowing the group to use his or her resources.”
Bestavros said that Anonymous is using the Internet, and specifically DDoS attacks, as a battlefield to advance their varied agendas. In the case of SOPA, it was the “phenomenon of asymmetry” that Anonymous responded to.
“These are people who think the Internet is worth fighting for, like a war,” he said. “Anonymous targets any example of asymmetry, like in Egypt, where the power of the establishment trumps the WikiLeaks of the World.”
Personally, Bestavros said he is not a fan of government piracy acts.
“Coming from a background in computer networking, I’m against SOPA and PIPA,” he said.
“By trying to make the Internet better, we make it worse,” he said. “We did not change the technology of cars simply because people sped up, or drove under the influence. Technology can easily become too cumbersome.”
While Bestavros said he does not support Anonymous, he said that the need for anonymity is crucial.
“In the digital world, without anonymity how can you express strong opinions, be one of thousands, and really affect the government without being at risk of identification?” he said.
On the other hand, online anonymity has been a contributing factor in Internet piracy, said Frederick Huntsberry, Chief Operating Officer of Paramount Pictures, in a presentation about protecting intellectual property.
“The anonymity of the Internet creates a double standard,” Huntsberry said. “Most people wouldn’t walk into a store and steal something, but if it’s on the Internet, they think it’s free. When we’re on the Internet, we become anonymous and can say whatever we want.”
Despite the current laws in place, accessing stolen content continues to be very easy for Internet users, Huntsberry said.
However, Paramount is not interested in targeting the individuals who are downloading films, but rather the foreign companies making a huge profit from selling stolen content..
“What’s most concerning to me is the loss of cultural heritage,” he said. “Major studio releases have dropped 8% annually since 2006, when piracy really took off. The protection of American intellectual property is crucial to the nation’s future.”
Huntsberry said that protection of individual rights stems from the Copyright Clause of our constitution and should be followed.
“We need to bring people together, and agree that we want to stimulate American intellectual property,” he said. “SOPA aimed for a ‘safe, ubiquitous, lawful Internet.’
“The silver lining of SOPA is that raised awareness of the issue. People are starting to talk about SOPA.”
Although many people are talking about SOPA, the dialogue remains unclear at times.
“I remember when everyone was freaking out about SOPA, but I feel like 70 percent of those people had no idea what it was about,” said College of Arts and Sciences freshman Emily Cyr.
Despite this, anti-censorship protests are alive on campus. CAS freshman Rea Sowan even distributed anti-censorship flyers on Commonwealth Avenue.
“Giving private corporations the power to censor the Internet is a concept that f–king scares me and should also scare the f–k out of any sensible being,” Sowan said. “Increased censorship in this form will affect innocent Internet users, whilst the people they really want to stop will only find more invasive methods of getting what they want.”
School of Management senior Tom Yoon said that the ambiguity of the bill’s language remains one of its most significant criticisms.
“I think SOPA is too vague, and can easily be used to censor the Internet,” he said.
Thomas Fiedler, the dean of the College of Communication, said SOPA is an example of “inartful wording of the law.”
However, while the concerns regarding the extension of SOPA are reasonable, the bill was not intended to discourage free speech, Fiedler said.
“Many COM graduates were coming to me with their concerns about piracy, and their concerns were legitimate,” Fiedler said. “What Anonymous is doing is illegal, unethical, and disturbing. As a journalist, I’m offended by their cloak of anonymity.”
Fiedler even went further, saying that Anonymous has crime-like tendencies.
“It’s vandalism of a kind, and reminds me of Mafia fear tactics,” he said. “Intimidation is a crime. Anyone even in favor of an amended SOPA was at risk from Anonymous.”
Christopher Lewert, a content protection research analyst at Paramount Pictures, said that although Anonymous is not going to prevent people from supporting SOPA, they do influence a person’s thought process.
“People run the risk of being targeted by Anonymous, so businesses can be hindered. It’s not about Jay-Z and Tom Cruise making millions, piracy affects the people at the bottom, more than the people at the top,” he said. “This needs to be a discussion, not a situation where it’s ‘If I disagree, I’m going to hit you.’ And that’s what Anonymous is doing.”
Fred Bayles, associate professor of journalism in the College of Communication and director of BU’s State House Program, said the Anonymous movement is “born out of individual frustration.”
“Anonymous brings up the issue of free speech, but free speech for who?” Bayles said. “Their actions are contradictory. They’re fighting for free speech, while denying other people free speech. The genius of Anonymous is also its burden.”