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When 'Anonymous' protest goes too far

By Andrew Keen, Special to CNN
  • Members of a group "Anonymous" have attacked websites on behalf of WikiLeaks
  • Andrew Keen says the members see themselves as civil rights activists
  • He says they don't compare to lunch counter protesters who put themselves at risk
  • Keen: Hackers hide behind the technology they say is about truth and transparency

Editor's note: Andrew Keen is the author of the upcoming "DIGITAL VERTIGO: An Anti Social Manifesto." Follow him on Twitter at

(CNN) -- The future has arrived in the form of a virtual political network that could have stepped out of a dystopian William Gibson piece of science fiction. "We are everywhere, we are everyone. We are Anonymous," boasted a member of Anonymous, the self-appointed defenders of WikiLeaks and of Internet freedom, in an online interview earlier this week with the Economist.

Anonymous offers a warning about the future of radical political protest in the digital age of radical transparency. And, for those who value political accountability and responsibility, Anonymous is as chilling as one of Gibson's bleakest visions.

For all their boasts of ubiquity and omnipotence, Anonymous might not be quite everywhere and they certainly aren't everyone -- but they are unquestionably anonymous, both as an insurrectionary global brand and in the faceless style of their digital disobedience.

Adopting cyber-libertarian handles like Tux and Coldblood, they are the several thousand "Anons" behind this week's denial-of-service attacks (DDoS) on the websites of companies like Paypal, Mastercard and Visa that have refused to do business with WikiLeaks.

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Given that the offense of these American companies was to give up Wikileaks' quite lucrative business, there is a certain irony in calling Anonymous' online crusade "Operation Payback." That said, what some commentators are calling a full-out war is no joking matter for the Anons -- an open-source network of self-styled freedom fighters for whom the perceived censorship of Wikileaks content represents such a mortal threat to human rights that they are roused to action and, they say, are working on our behalf, even if we disagree with them. As their Operation Payback manifesto generously says:

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"We support the free flow of information. Anonymous is actively campaigning for this goal everywhere in all forms. This necessitates the freedom of expression for the Internet, for journalism and journalists, and citizens of the world. Though we recognize you may disagree, we believe that Anonymous is campaigning for you so that your voice may never be silenced."

The Anons see themselves as classic civil rights activists, challenging unjust power in the name of people and forcing large corporations to take responsibility for their own actions. "This is the modern equivalent of the lunch counter sit-in," Moryath, an Anon sympathizer, wrote on "Are they disrupting business? Perhaps, but no worse than the lunch counter sit-ins did."

So how does the Anonymous campaign against Mastercard, Visa and Paypal compare to the American civil rights movement? Is it really comparable to the lunch counter sit-ins of fifty years ago?

On February 1, 1960, four university freshman at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University -- Ezell Blair Jr, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Franklin McCain -- first staged their peaceful and legal sit-in at the whites-only lunch counter of the Woolworth's department store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Their protest was designed to picket and boycott stores like Woolworth's for maintaining segregated eating areas for white and black customers. They wanted Woolworth to take responsibility for their racist policies.

This original sit-in quickly grew, of course, into a national human-rights movement involving 70,000 students which eventually successfully ended racial segregation in American chain stores.

The fundamental difference between Anonymous and the lunch counter sit-ins lies in their anonymity. In Greensboro, the activists were citizens called Blair, Richmond, McNeil and McCain; in Anonymous, they are science fictional characters called Moryath, Tux and Coldblood.

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The two movements have in common their call for corporations to take responsibility for their own actions. But while the American civil rights activists took responsibility for their own actions and thus openly risked jail and violence for standing up for their beliefs, the shadowy members of Anonymous are not willing to reveal their real identities.

For all their fetishization of the supposed accountability, openness and transparency realized through digital technology, Anonymous is a quintessentially oblique organization rooted in hiding behind the very technology that is supposed to be making the world a more open place.

So why won't Anonymous take responsibility for their actions? The difference lies in their politics -- or, more accurately, their lack of politics. While the civil rights activists in Greensboro wanted Woolworth to change their whites-only lunch counter policy (rather than simply burn down the store), Anonymous has no political goals beyond destroying or disabling the websites of its enemies.

Because Anonymous regards large companies like Mastercard or Visa as necessarily corrupt, its tactics and strategy are inevitably destructive. The Anons have no interest in compromise, discussion or engagement with their opponents. Thus, as the Anon fellow-traveler Coldblood told the BBC, Anonymous is in a "state of war" against all opponents of WikiLeaks.

"The first serious infowar is now engaged, The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops," co-founder of the EFF John Perry Barlow ( tweeted last week. Barlow might be right to suggest that Anonymous has a mission -- metaphorically, at least.

Much of the American government's excessive reaction to WikiLeaks is very troubling. But serious digital activists like Barlow need to temper their language. The irresponsible warriors of Anonymous, with their destructive hatred of the American government and American corporations, discredit the defenders of WikiLeaks. As Barlow himself tweeted on Wednesday: "Sorry, but I don't support DDoSing You can't defend The Right to Know by shutting someone up."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Keen.