So far they have stood for freedom of speech, the press and are currently inspiring jealousy in the ranks of law enforcement by toppling child porn rings like they were dominoes. These determined, skilled and seemingly organized net-vigilantes follow a paradoxically strict-yet-loose set of rules:
“We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”
How do they succeed where our established institutions fail? How can they juggle the seriousness of FBI criminalized hacking with glib showmanship? The clue’s in the name.
Privacy and our rights to be who we are and say what we wish online are constantly at the forefront of civil debate. As our lives expand to cover the interconnecting technologies we create, it becomes ever more pressing that some inalienable ground rules exist to honour the freedom which lies at the pulsing heart of the net. With all that we have created, most pointedly in the age of the social network, there is a seesaw relationship with privacy and the information we want and want not to go on show.
Facebook, Google+ and Twitter instill in us a sense of urgency about transmitting our affairs to 'friends' as if we are not being truly social unless we declare our activities almost immediately upon their undertaking. And maybe this is true of our modern age where, like 'anonymous' the words 'Social' and 'Communication' mean very different things to their literal intention.
Counterpoint to this are the personal and extended arms of privacy. There is an importance to have a tight grasp on what we put onto the internet in our name, how we hope to be perceived, the information we share voluntarily and how easy it is to trace any comment back to the original poster. This information has now become a valid part of daily life; from job interviews to dating, someone at sometime will quickly scan a google search and judge the validity of your character via this information, and this is why internet anonymity is such a strange and valued commodity. Beyond this personal investigation there is the broader issue of how and whether the information we share so freely is therefore open to further sharing and harvesting by the companies in charge of our communication tools. Recent protests to proposed legislations SOPA, PIPA and the still present CISPA show that we live in a strange world of fluid privacy where we socially scream our secrets from the rooftop but expect no-one to pass on the message afterwards.
Anonymity is the very linchpin of the internet’s popularity, online games and personalised avatars mean that we are all free be who we want to be on the net. The blanket wall of backlit screen in front of us seems to allow enough disconnect-when-we-connect that we are liberated in our opinions and, to some extent actions. But, like the decision to be a paragon of honesty, being able to hide behind the near faceless, fawkesian mask of the internet comes as a double-edged sword. Social contracts break down to a point where every obscure voice, no matter how tasteless or offensive its rhetoric, can demand a segment of the floor and claim validity to its opinions. Because isn't that really what the net is about? Giving voice to the voiceless, communication and rights to open forum, a truly global mindset built on the ideas of everyone's contributions. Sadly these disembodied voices of the conscious subconscious often find targets for their venting in ways based on little more than childish spite. The recent case of Anita Sarkeesian highlighted just how vapid yet frightening the free-roam voice of the net can be.
Ms. Sarkeesian became the focus of bigotry, misogyny and blatant hatred. Slammed with every insult a woman should never hear, having her public/internet image defaced and defamed and even becoming the unwilling star in a series of video game based porn cartoons. Her crime? She wanted to raise a little money to produce a show about how women are represented in gaming. The curio of this case is the fervor and vitriol spat at such a rate and power over something which had not yet been created. Mouthing off in hatred at something which doesn't even exist seems beyond absurd, like yelling at Mrs Hitler's baby bump in 1889. But the absurd can be unleashed when we do not have to account for our actions, when we can hide and, as if making ransom demands offer our opinions without discernible voices. It stems from the same basis as the hangman's hood or three switches which now issue the lethal injection, we are morally distanced by our anonymity.
Yet that distance can also keep us safe and allow us to discuss and come to terms with parts of ourselves that are difficult to talk about in regular, real-life polite society. The self proclaimed 'front page of the internet' reddit.com is famed for it capability in allowing users to create what are known as throwaway accounts. With these accounts users can openly discuss taboo and confessional subjects without the backlash which would be expected had they done so publicly of IRL. (In Real Life) A recent case of this which gleaned some media attention was a topic of supposed rapists explaining their plight and how the situation has changed them. We are mostly acclimatized in modern society to hear the voice of the victims of such atrocities but, in the same way that there is no ribbon for lung cancer, we don't hear from the perpetrators.
In societies eyes they deserve all that the law can bury them with and more but, with the anonymity of the internet in place, we could hear the shame and the true repentance of actual human beings. I'm not here to make judgements on the attrition of people convicted of rape but I do feel that in our culture of self proclaimed humanitarianism and oversaturated information there is room and there is definitely a method to know and understand more.
This, in itself, is the paradox of modern freedom of speech. We are more free now than ever before to act, say and appear to others as we wish and as time goes on this is becoming true of almost all nations. No matter how hard they try governments seem to be powerless to not only control but clearly define the right the internet crants a populous.
We are free to discuss, talk and understand but also unfettered to discriminate, demonise and offend as is our whim. Some choose to fight crime and right wrongs, some choose to repent, explain and spread understanding and some choose to argue and beat drums of decent.
The real question is who is who?