The Vigilante Collective
With the advent of the internet, a fundamental change was brought about in the functioning of our media systems – a shift from dissemination to communication. For the first time, there was a media platform where the user could provide real-time feedback and thus take part in the surfacing dialogue. With the mushrooming of interactive text and video forums and the hacker-grown file sharing networks, information was set free.
Case studies for media censorship
North Korea does not allow its public to use the world wide web, as an extension of its juche ideology of self-reliance, which translates into a huge blind spot for information outside the control of the hereditary dictatorship. N.Korea has a monitored private internet – Kwangmyong- that allows the discourse more often than sharing of information that the government deems suitable. Entertainment and information is widely shared illegally, mainly through portable recordable devices, in the face of a hefty fine – a silent rebellion.
The great firewall in China tries to ensure widespread censorship of political speech and information on the internet as part of the pervasive media-control system that aims to silence criticism against the government establishment.
Reporters without borders consistently ranks both countries at the very bottom of the press freedom index – N. Korea ranks 178 and China ranks 174 out of 179 for the 2011-2012 year. Amnesty international and human rights watch refer to citizens of both nations as some of the world’s most brutalized people.
In the UAE, excessive filtering of ‘obscene’ content denies valuable medical information to students and forces inhabitants to pay excessively for telephony by blocking Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP).
The allied West follows
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) are United States bills that seek to expand the provisions of the current laws governing copyright of material shared and distributed online. Opponents of the legislature argue that the proposed legislation aims to bring about absolute control over free speech and sharing of information, making it simply another version of China’s monitored internet. The proposed bills will allow law enforcement to block access to entire domains in the name of infringing content posted by individual users. SOPA does indeed seem to be legislation to override the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, thus significantly widening the scope of possible censorship.
In January 2012, the European Union and its member states signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), resulting in widespread protests across Europe.
In 2003, the government of India created the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) aimed to issue blocking orders of websites. On February 7, 2011, the government released proposed administrative regulations to further add to the literature of hosts’ obligations to perform “due diligence”. A particularly short period was set for comments on the rules – the end of February. The government response to criticism was a press release asserting: “these due diligence practices are the best practices followed internationally by well-known mega corporations operating on the Internet.”
The rules came into force in April, requiring intermediaries to adopt terms of service that prohibit users from hosting, displaying, publishing, sending or sharing any forbidden content, not limited to obscene or infringing content, but also extending to any material that threatens national “unity” or “integrity,” “public order,” or that is “grossly offensive or menacing in nature,” “disparaging,” or “otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever.” – a broad standard that fails to set clear limits on what kinds of content may be taken down and has since then, invited abuse.
On January 18, 2012, Wikipedia, Reddit, and thousands of other smaller websites coordinated a service blackout, to raise awareness about the direness of the issue. Wikipedia went dark for 24 hours while Google blacked out its logo. Petition drives, boycotts, rallies and signature collection were widely reported, while grassroots level social media activism went into overdrive.
Amidst the furore, a novel form of protest has risen. Anonymous, a hackers’ collective has taken matters to another level, and generated popular support for the movement on the ground. Anonymous has gained attention by issuing spectacular warning messages to the perpetrators of these laws – the mega corporations and their puppets, who according to them, are trying to control dissent on the internet. Interviews with anonymous members have seen them advocating a ‘free internet’ concept where government or corporate censorship is dead. Apart from protests on the ground (where members wear Guy Fawkes masks originally designed by David Lloyd for the V for vendetta comics and later used in the movie), their modus operandi seems to be distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.
What makes anonymous a concept that needs discussion, is its decentralised model that allows anyone with an issue to share, to use the label – “you are anonymous if you want to be”. They make no bones about flouting laws they do not believe in, acting as an anarchic multi-centred cyber vigilante.
Anonymous famously reacted to corporations opposing Wikileaks through DDOS attacks on Visa, MasterCard and PayPal , among others. Legal attacks by American agencies on file sharing sites – the pirate bay and Megaupload – too attracted the irk of anonymous, with websites, including those owned by the United States Department of Justice, the FBI, Universal Music Group, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Broadcast Music, Inc. being disabled. The next pet cause for anonymous internationally, seems to be SOPA.
The Indian Congress Committee and Supreme Court websites, along with websites associated with Reliance Big cinemas were reportedly taken down by DDOS attacks as part of Anonymous’ #OpIndia hacktivism campaign. This was in response to Indian Internet service providers blocking video and file sharing websites such as Vimeo, torrentz.eu, Daily Motion, Pastebin and The Pirate Bay. The ISPs were rebelling against state proposal for a UN Committee for Internet Related Policies (CIRP) that seeks to give India’s ruling party discretion to censor all online content.
In a country where dominant parties rush to control the syllabus of universities, removing disparate literature every year, the pertinent question may not be about the scope of cyber vigilantes breaking the law. With the recent upsurge of government activity to control the internet, amidst greater media buying in India by American corporations and rumours of the longest running fiat currency in the world kicking the bucket, a significantly nastier question comes up. What are they so scared we will find out?