100 Years Worth of Federal Prison Charges for Alleged 'Hactivist'?
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As an Internet muckraker, Brown had a penchant for “pulling the string” wherever it might lead. He was quick to take on established interests and orthodoxies, picking apart cherished truths if just to see their adherents scowl. Eventually this predilection led him to become bound up with a group that made Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential “People” of 2012: the hackers’ collective known as Anonymous.
The media, in referring to Anonymous, usually suggest that it is far more concrete an entity than it actually is, with “members” and a chain of command. In fact, Anonymous has no more “organization” than a group of strangers with shared interests in, say, a Harry Potter chat room. As a result, responsibility for any action attributed to Anonymous is, by its very nature, diffuse and untraceable.
What originally united “members” was immersion in a Net-centric subculture that prizes personal liberty and anonymity, if simply to exercise the right to “prank” people online. From this amorphous origin evolved a network of rebellious scofflaws and bored teenagers, along with a share of idealistic activists. The potential to mobilize these individuals to act in concert for a commonly defined goal is what gives Anonymous its power. Over time, a few of these digital rapscallions came to share a belief that this power can— and should— be used as a democratizing force.
Some trace the “group’s” beginning back to 2003 on the imageboard 4chan.org—a forum for discussing Japanese comics. “These were just kids … interested in arcane Japanese web culture and, of course, pictures of boobs,” says Tim Rogers—author of a D Magazine cover story on Brown’s Anonymous links. “They harassed people in online role-playing games and indulged in other forms of online pranking.”
Then, as now, users (now often known as “Anons”) would communicate using Internet Relay Chats (IRCs), a now ubiquitous staple of the Internet. For laymen, an IRC can best be understood like any other chat room (among other things, enabling live text messaging, privately or within groups, as well as data transfer capabilities.) Whether for digital pranking, discussing the Japanese anime craze, or coordinating resistance to repressive regimes, the ability to communicate and organize via IRCs has been apparent since the chats first appeared in the late 1980s. For example, during the 1991 “ August Putsch” by Communist hardliners against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, IRCs were used to disseminate information during an internal media blackout.
What eventually became Anonymous’s IRCs didn’t begin as places to plan ”hacktivism.” They were simply digital hangouts where computer geeks could gather to discuss modes of pranking in online gaming communities. And as anyone who’s ever surveyed a comment forum can attest, anonymity gives users the nerve to say things that, for fear of reputational damage or social stigma, they otherwise never would. This admittedly mean-spirited ethos was a staple of the culture in IRCs.
“One of the things that Anonymous was at that time was an outlet [for Anons] to vent a little,’” explains Gregg Housh—a once-active member of Anonymous and confidant of Brown’s. “Sociopaths seem to fit naturally into that world,” Housh says. “[It] wasn’t about activism.”As an aficionado of such activities in the online role-playing game Second Life—allegedly creating swarms of digital dildos with which to barrage other people’s online houses until their computers crashed—Barrett Brown was able to parlay his way into the often-sophomoric Anonymous fraternity.
Not So Anonymous
As a freelance writer by day, and online prankster by night, Barrett Brown found himself at home among his new cohorts in the Anonymous IRCs.