The hacker collective Anonymous has struck government websites again, this time the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the National Consumer Protection Week websites. According to the Associated Press, "both sites were replaced with a violent German-language video satirizing the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA." A pastebin page to which some of the Anonymous associated Twitter accounts are linking outlines the message that was distributed by the hackers, as well as a link to the violent videomentioned in the AP article.
The hackings were in response both to Google's recent changes to its terms of service and, more prominently, to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which 22 of the European Union’s 27 member states signed last month in Tokyo. Pressure from Anonymous and anti-ACTA activists caused Poland to suspend the bill last week, where members of its Parliament donned Guy Fawkes masks in protest. Poland and Slovenia are now distancing themselves from the treaty.
ACTA is an international treaty aimed at curtailing copyright infringement, counterfeit and pirated goods, and other forms of intellectual property theft across multiple member states. Statements from Anonymous The agreement is meant to provide a framework for member countries, which have differences in legal systems and practices, to work together cooperatively "to address the problem of infringement of intellectual property rights, including infringement taking place in the digital environment, in particular with respect to copyright or related rights, in a manner that balances the rights and interests of the relevant right holders, service providers, and users." In light of controversy over the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act, ACTA has generated a good deal of discussion and debate in the same political and activism circles. Some fear it's too much government intrusion for a solution that they believe may not ultimately address the problem adequately anyway. Others have argued that while such legislation may be flawed, the need to protect against international stealing online does exist.
Regardless of which side of the argument one resides, the concerns over all of the bills and the ACTA treaty have sparked several months' worth of actions taken by activists, with high profile widespread protests online, including entire or partial blackouts by bloggers and companies like Wikipedia and Google. Anonymous has been at the top of those headlines quite regularly.
When the Feds shut down file sharing provider Megaupload last month over various conspiracy charges, the move and its timing were viewed (whether wrongly or rightly) as being connected to SOPA/PIPA, and Anonymous went after the FBI, Department of Justice and other government agencies' websites with a vengeance. The hackers also targeted Universal Music Group, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the primary benefactors of the proposed legislation.
But some, including Kashmir Hill at Forbes, a regular correspondent on Anonymous, questioned whether the hacktivist collective had undone the good will of that activism with its actions.
The next day, though, the Internet showed its darker side. The sites of the bills’ supporters — including RIAA and MPAA — were blacked out by force, when Anonymous attacked them, along with the sites of the Department of Justice, the FBI, the U.S. Copyright Office, and Universal Music, in retaliation for the criminal indictment of file-sharing site Megaupload. The sites were down for less than 12 hours, but this builds on what can only be called political thuggery by these particular advocates. This has included punishing companies that were pushing for SOPA by posting private information about their executives and their families, and Photoshopping a 25-year-old aide for the House Judiciary Committee into a pornographic photo. Not your usual tried and trued political lobbying.
And despite its prominent opposition to SOPA and participation in the partial blackout protests online, Google has since become a target of Anonymous as well. After the technology giant announced that it plans to combine the terms of service for all of its 60 products into a single agreement and user profile to go into effect on March 1st, a move that causes privacy concerns for some, theElectronic Privacy Information Center filed suit against the FTC. Many Google users have more than one profile for legitimate purposes, such as keeping their personal and work life separate. But when Google's change combines all of a user's activities into a single profile, some fear this will cause users to disclosure their personal information involuntarily. Bloomberg reports:
Congressmen Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, called on the agency “to investigate whether Google’s proposed changes violate” a March consent decree to settle FTC claims that the search-engine operator used deceptive practices and violated its own privacy guidelines when it introduced the Buzz social networking service in 2010.
Google announced in a blog post Jan. 24 that it will create a uniform set of privacy guidelines for more than 60 products. The move rankled regulators, including data protection agencies in Ireland and France, along with consumer groups such as San Francisco-based Common Sense Media, who said the change might limit users’ control over what the company can do with their information.
“This new policy would allow Google to follow the activities of users across nearly all its services, including Gmail,Google Search, Google+ and YouTube,” Markey and Barton said in a letter today to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “This new policy and omission of a consumer opt-out option on a product- by-product basis raises a number of important privacy concerns.”
In the past, a user could effectively have one profile for their personal life and another for their corporate life. This change will combine all activities a person does into a single profile, leading to the possible of involuntary disclosure of personal information.
According to Time's Techland blog, Anonymous launched its own social network, AnonPlus, as an alternative to Google+ last year, after one of its high profile members was banned from the network.
Anonymous—specifically ‘youranonnews’—was banned from Google+ last week for harboring content that “violated” Google’s Community Standards (Google also yanked their Gmail account). The group says that at the time, it didn’t realize it was just one of several Anonymous accounts shown the door.
“This is the sad fact of what happens across the internet when you walk to a different beat of the drum,” opined the group on a subsidiary site. “We’ve all heard the stories of activists being banned from FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube, and governments blocking their people from these sites as well through organized black outs.”
“That day has came [sic] to an end. Not only did a few people organized [sic] an Operation [against] Google+, but we have started to build our own Social Network… The sheep era is over. The interwebz are no longer your prison.”
While first amendment and privacy activists on all sides of the political spectrum may share in many of the concerns expressed by Anonymous' actions in protest against ACTA and Google, some strongly question the role that Anonymous plays in politics. While the collective has been effective in achieving some good results on a variety of issues, such as (with The Pirate Bay) opening upinternet access to the Iranian protesters during the country's 2009 elections, and fighting child pornography, the collective has no "official" organizational structure that would maintain control of decisions on targets or the tactics used in pursuing those targets.
This has its drawbacks, which are not insignificant. Rogue elements of Anonymous have often operated in dubious ways, such as releasing the personal information of targets' family members and associates, sometimes even getting the target or information wrong. Others have been known to release such information, and then turn to social networking sites to direct others to the details and to incite further harassment or harm. Just last week, Anonymous posted the information of various officials in Oakland, CA in response to the city's police force blocking Occupy protesters from occupying a city convention center. Some of the information was not correct.
In January, after hacking the Ultimate Fighting Championship website, Anonymous then went after the organization's president Dana White when he defended his stance on SOPA. The hackers retaliated by publishing his personal information - including his social security number. But the information was not that of the UFC president, rather it belonged to a now very paranoid innocent woman, prompting White to visit the victim to offer an apology, in which he referred to Anonymous as "terrorists."
While Anonymous as an entity purports to stand for freedom of speech, this is not necessarily the ideology of many of those who associate themselves to the Anonymous moniker. And judging by the climate on Twitter, as well as first-hand reports coming in to this Bigs contributor, the number of instances of similar bullying incidents against those who express differing political opinions does not appear to be in decline, either. To the contrary, we can likely expect such tactics to become more aggressive and more nefarious as the political climate heats up leading to the 2012 elections.