Carrying On: Who watches the watchmen?

February 9, 2012

The latest Internet-sharing apocalypse has struck the procrastinating college student in full force. Megaupload has been driven to an early grave, leaving many young adults with withdrawal-like symptoms, driving them right into the arms of cheaper, virus-ridden substitutes—vidxden.com, fullonshows.com, firststoptv.com, to name a few.

Though cut down in its prime, and suffering a fate similar to those of music-sharing sites Napster and Kazaa in decades past, Megaupload did not go down without a fight. A larger force was in motion to oppose the shutdown of the site and the looming SOPA legislation—Anonymous.

A loosely organized coalition of activist computer hackers, Anonymous took its battle to the web, targeting and shutting down the websites of the U.S. Justice Department, the FBI, and Universal Music Group (among others) in response to the seizure of Megaupload. Though this was not the first time Anonymous has lashed out against anti-piracy laws, it represented what it called the “single largest Internet attack in history.”

With the capabilities of technology and the web constantly advancing, the Internet presents a simultaneous threat and opportunity. The emergence of Anonymous, generated within the system as a means of taking advantage of the opportunities and checking the threats, comes as no surprise. Vigilante justice often appears where the justice system falls short.

As part of “Operation Darknet” in 2011, Anonymous released the usernames and other details of 1,589 suspected pedophiles who frequented sites connected to the child pornography trade. In a statement released shortly thereafter, Anonymous expressed its hope that their efforts would be taken up by the FBI, Interpol, and other law enforcement agencies to bring the suspected pedophiles to justice. With the ability to hack into servers, Anonymous has acted as a public defender and as an aid to the justice system. Unfortunately, not all of its efforts are as successful, or as unobjectionable.

The group’s efforts last fall to disband Mexico’s Zetas drug cartel, allegedly spurred by the kidnap of an Anonymous member, went awry when the group’s threat of releasing the names of cartel members and affiliates was met with promises of civilian death by the cartel. According to IberoAmerica, the faction of Anonymous that initiated Operation Cartel, “the cartel threatened to kill 10 people for each name of a Zeta supporter revealed.” Despite its noble intentions, Anonymous’s “#OpCartel” placed citizens in the line of fire instead of shielding them.

For many of us, Anonymous represents the vigilante ideal presented in comic books and popular films—the group has even adopted Guy Fawkes masks as a symbol for its anarchistic values and methods. But with enough power to undermine the system, Anonymous’s far-reaching influence sets a dangerous precedent. If any citizen can put on a mask or hide behind a screen while enacting justice, that person takes on an undeserved amount of power and potential for harm. Amonymous’s actions in Mexico could have potentially cost the lives of dozens of civilians. If the cartel had realized their threat, it would be difficult to hold the men behind the masks accountable.

Justice exists as an idea, and the justice system exists as a progressive body aiming always to reach our ideal of justice. The system is subject to scrutiny, error, and, most importantly, it is subject to public sentiment. The Mexican government, which possessed thousands of emails listing individuals with ties to the Zeta cartel that Anonymous hacked, had reasons for not exposing cartel members. It’s likely that their reasoning was the same that caused Anonymous to retreat—the threat of civilian death. Moreover, the Mexican government would have answered publicly for these deaths, while Anonymous as a group would only suffer in prestige as an organization behind the screens of the web.

Chris Landers of Baltimore City Paper once described Anonymous as a group “in the sense that a flock of birds is a group … at any given moment, more birds could join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely.” Anonymous, despite the valor and fervor behind many of their operations, is an ungoverned body constantly on the brink of migration to another political hotbed. One can only hope that these masked vigilantes don’t lose sight of true North.

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