I’ll probably get in trouble for writing this, but somebody has to. Feeling full of themselves after the Wikileaks affair, Anonymous has started going after other worthy targets. The problem is, they’re doing it in a way that almost guarantees a bad outcome. For example, look at their letter to Westboro Baptist Church.

We, the collective super-consciousness known as ANONYMOUS

Might as well stop there. This introduction, plus the hyperbole and contorted sentence structure throughout, makes me think of nothing so much as James T. Kirk’s painfully melodramatic speeches in old Star Trek episodes. This is not the image you want to project when you’re fighting for a cause. For an even worse example, consider the antics at last week’s RSA conference.

loooooooooooooooooool
owned by anonymous. niiiice.

Again, stop there. Already we have text/internet shorthand, no caps, general swagger, etc. It looks like a child drunk on power, not an adult making a serious policy point. “In it 4 the lulz” indeed . . . and that’s the problem. I don’t object to Anonymous’s choice of targets here. Westboro Baptist definitely deserves some karmic payback, and evidence suggest the same of HBGary Federal. I don’t even object to their tactics, though some might. The problem is the kind of attention this will get them, and how that attention might turn into policy changes that adversely affect all of us. Anonymous clearly wields great power. Power can be used by heroes, and it can be used by bullies. The difference often lies in two things.

  • Identifying yourself. There is no way to tell who’s really Anonymous and who’s just some totally unrelated internet cretin using the name and cause as an excuse for random acts of vandalism. This is kind of ironic, since the real members of Anonymous are clearly experts in technologies such as secure anonymous publishing that would allow them to take or deny credit for any particular act without having to reveal their identities. Anonymous is really pseudonymous, not anonymous, and should take care to preserve the distinction.
  • Defining yourself. Real freedom fighters have identifiable goals and methods. We might not approve of either, but without any explanations (beyond generic “freedom of information” blather that could mean anything) or apparent limits nobody will see the nobility of the cause. Why is Anonymous more prominently taking on Westboro and HBGary, or even Visa and Mastercard, instead of Qaddafi? To extend that thought a little, how are their methods really distinct from Qaddafi’s? Without Anonymous taking a clear stand, “in it 4 the lulz” effectively becomes their credo.

I’m not suggesting that Anonymous should behave differently to satisfy my or anyone else’s comfort level. I’m suggesting they should do so for the sake of the very goals they (vaguely) claim to value. When people see a group with far more power than self-control, which fails to distinguish itself from any other band of bullies, then the Powers That Be will start to see bands of bullies on the internet as a Real Problem. Those who are already looking for any excuse to require ID before connecting to the internet, or to give security agencies more power to invade our privacy in the name of tracking down the Bad People, will be all over that. Policy makers aren’t listening to us, the people. They’re listening to the people with money – like HBGary Federal or worse – who stand to make even more money in such a world. They’re also listening to people like the RIAA/MPAA who would also dearly love a more controlled internet. A very likely outcome of all this is much less privacy and potential for anonymity on the internet. Thanks a lot, Anonymous.