Mr. Washington Goes to Anonymous

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Welcome to one of the inner rings of The Establishment. We're near Dupont Circle, a short distance to the various centers of power in Washington, DC. The Capitol Building is not so far. The White House, too. The myriad National Associations dot the streets, and the K Street lobbyists and big law firms are a few blocks away.

Here we find The Brookings Institution, one of DC's oldest think tanks. When you think of people in suits coming up with policies that become laws, this is one of the places you're thinking about. 

Today's order of business was a panel about Anonymous, about hacktivism, about... the lulz. "Radical online activism is a new public-policy challenge, with groups such as Anonymous being described as everything from terrorist organizations to freedom fighters," the Institution billed it.

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The speaker charged with explaining Anonymous' idiosyncrasies was Biella Coleman, an anthropologist who has been studying the group and its affiliates for months and months. An hour before she went on stage, she asked her Twitter followers, "The question for today: do I dare say 'Ultra-Coordinated Motherfuckeray' to the D.C. establishment in one hour?" (She didn't, sadly.)

This is the challenge Anonymous poses to the establishment. For those who think it is risky to wear a skinny tie, the group's argot and traditions are so alien that it's difficult to parse what the the group is. I have long imagined some DC lawyers gathered around 4chan.org with looks of horror and disgust on their faces. Even Coleman, who has spent massive amounts of time embedded among Anonymous and 4chan users, noted that the latter site was "teeming with pornography" and that many of its members communicate "in a language that seems to reduce English to a string of epithets." Which would, of course, be the point. Outsiders aren't supposed to understand.

So, when Coleman came to the microphone before the Brookings-blue logos of the stage, I was curious to see how her presentation of the social dynamics of Anonymous might be perceived. She described the group's birth on 4chan and the turn that some groups within the larger mass took to engage in activist politics in 2008, changes that came in the process of griefing the Church of Scientology in Project Chanology. Through that experience, various Anons developed the digital and physical moves that they'd later use on other organizations.

She covered several other notable Anonymous and AnonOps (separate group) exploits. What was fascinating about her talk was the way that it gave the impression that -- much as people would like to -- it is very difficult to separate out the different kinds of activities that define Anonymous' do-ocracy. Anonymous, a bit like Occupy Wall Street, is as much a platform for action as anything else, and individual efforts are largely separate from any other effort. This massive decentralization of power makes it difficult for Anonymous to stand for any one thing or even to ask that question of itself as an institution. It wouldn't make sense to say, "What are Anonymous' politics?" even if it seems clear that, in inchoate, intuitive form, there are some.

Coleman also highlighted the way Anons follow a strictly enforced "no fame" policy in which those members who seek celebrity are shunned. But inside the group, individuality is encouraged. The whole enterprise is "evasive, shifty, and nomadic," but not necessarily in a bad way.

That style is also a strategy. As Richard Forno, the graduate program director of University of Maryland, Baltimore County's cybersecurity program, explained, for those trying to defend their organizations an Anonymous attack, the very fact that no one controls the operation makes it difficult to strike back. Beyond any technical resilience the hackers build into an operation, the anonymity and decentralization create a social resilience. There's no one person to apprehend, no organization to strike, nothing to hit.

The last speaker was Paul Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig has a classic Washington resume: University of Chicago JD, lecturer at George Washington Law School, visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, various posts at the Department of Homeland Security, and a bow tie.

I have to admit that he did not strike me as likely to understand or feel much sympathy for Anonymous. But Rosenszweig did a fantastic job of framing the group's activities for the policy crowd. "I offer the comments with a great degree of uncertainty and trepidation," he began, and then used the nominal title of the panel, "Hacktivism, Vigilantism and Collective Action in a Digital Age," as a way of illuminating different aspects of Anonymous and how policymakers might respond to it. Far from the befuddled establishment lawyer that I expected, Rosenszweig's sensitivity to the multivalence of Anonymous impressed me. We can only hope that other people whispering into lawmakers' ears are as intellectually curious as he is.

"In some instances, [Anonymous' action] is hacktivism of a vicious sort or vigilantism of an even more vicious sort," Rosenszweig said. "And in some instances, it embodies collective action that has been a tradition and core part of what we in America think of as free speech and political activity."

These distinctions matter. If policymakers think of Anonymous as hacktivism, they may see it as a kind of insurgency that they would battle not solely with policing but also with a battle to win hearts-and-minds and rob the group of its moral standing. If they see the group as vigilantes, they might take a more crime-fighting approach. And if they see the group as embodying collective action, "that's a whole different kettle of fish."

"If it's a First Amendment sort of activity, the only thing that's legitimate is to police the margins and enforce the traditional First Amendment rules like preventing a heckler's veto, so one part of speech doesn't drown out another part," he said.

Rosenzweig tipped his hand a little as to how he sees the group, but with the utmost (and seemingly honest) humility.

"I tend to see predominant within Anonymous, the more adverse parts and more the criminality and the theft of private information," he concluded. "But I'm certainly willing to acknowledge that I might be wrong. And that kind of indeterminacy of the threat, if it is a threat at all, makes it very difficult, possibly impossible [to create] a coherent policy or a coherent legal approach."

All this to say that, given the yawning gulf between Anonymous and the DC establishment, I was shocked to discover that there are some among the elites that can be eminently reasonable about the kind of things that Anonymous does. Perhaps given the byzantine and bizarre ways that power flows in Washington, DC, it's easier to understand a strange group that has its own language and plays by its own rules.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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