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The Internet: A Salon for the Masses

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Despite lengthy sentences and exaggerated damage figures from the corporations that suffered the attacks, it’s hard to see how the hackers’ actions should result in anything more than lengthy community service sentences. What they did, and what Olson documents clearly, had no criminal intent behind it. All of their actions were forms of social protest and no one directly involved seems to have made a penny off of their actions, at least according to Olson. Additionally, most of the hackers were young, poor and came from troubled families. Many journalists have responded with, “They did something illegal, they should be punished.” While it’s true their actions were illegal, the companies and organizations they attacked quickly healed, and with minimal if any long-term damage, all of which hardly demands prison time.


Members of Anonymous, a product of this new information epoch, are not operating outside of the law, they are filling in for the law.

The US law-enforcement response to the attacks highlights how the country that claims freedom as its most cherished commodity has created a society that not only incarcerates more people per capita than any other country on Earth, but has created authoritarian bureaucratic institutions that are virtually unsupervised by normal citizens. The CIA, FBI, the Orwellian-named Department of Homeland Security, and the TSA, have all grown exponentially since 9/11, swallowing up more and more precious budget dollars. While Republicans decried so-called “entitlement” spending the 2012 budget for the CIA increased from 53 to 55 billion dollars. As a comparison, the 2012 US National Endowment for the Arts budget was 146 million dollars, a significant decrease from 2011. In fairness, all of these expenditures were approved by President Obama, a Democrat.


The picture that is revealed by the data is a bleak one. From the ‘80s onwards, and particularly after 9/11, the US has significantly increased its spending on police, prisons, defense and spy programs. We continually hear sound bites about how the poor are taking advantage of food stamps, medicare and other social welfare programs while politicians and the mainstream press turn a blind eye to where a larger and larger amount of tax dollars are going. In California, since 1980 funding for higher education has decreased by 30 percent while during the same period spending on law enforcement increased by a jaw-dropping 436 percent. Californians now spend more money on imprisoning its populace there than educating it via their once world-class University system. The State is rich with police unions, politicians, and corporations taking advantage of a citizenry that’s grown comfortably numb to where its hard earned tax-dollars are being spent.


Additionally, on a national level organizations like the FBI routinely engage in actions far worse than any hacker group is capable of. In a report based on a lengthy Freedom of Information Act case, the Electronic Freedom Foundation found that between 2001 and 2008 the FBI likely violated US law upwards of 40,000 times while investigating US citizens. What does it mean for the FBI to violate the law? It’s things like unlawful wiretaps, reading citizens emails unlawfully, arresting and questioning innocent people, and obtaining warrants by using purposefully misleading information. Because the FBI’s victims usually turn out to be innocent, these actions cause much more social destruction than an occasional website defacement.


An example of the FBI’s recklessness came during their investigations into Anonymous. In the Stratfor security breach led by LulzSec member Jeremy Hammond the FBI literally watched him hack the Stratfor website and did nothing to stop him. Yet, after the fact they claimed that his actions resulted in millions of dollars worth of damage. Olson writes:


“The FBI later denied to the New York Times that they “let [the Stratfor] attack happen for the purpose of collecting more evidence,” going on to claim the hackers were already knee-deep in Stratfor’s confidential files on December 6 [when the FBI was informed]. By then, they added, it was “too late” to stop the attack from happening. Court documents, however, show that the hackers did not access the Stratfor e-mails until around December 14.”


The New York Times article Olson references is interesting because it clearly states that the Stratfor website was defaced on 24 December 2011, a full 18 days after the FBI began watching Hammond’s every move online. This is no conspiracy theory: the FBI watched while an American company fell prey to a group of computer hackers. 


Since the late ‘90s the Internet has enabled the kind of freedom that only existed in Americans’ cherished fantasies of how their country was founded. Today an individual can literally experience almost any kind of freedom that he or she desires, as long as it originates at a computer terminal. From ordering any type of illegal drug on hidden websites to exploring the more wholesome freedoms of personal expression on sites like 4chan, the non-corporate Internet is a grand experiment in personal freedom, a salon for the masses. In 1992, David Clark, one of the engineers that helped craft the architecture of the Internet, wrote what has become the Internet equivalent of the Declaration of Independence: “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.”


In contrast, for the moment the rest of American society has seemingly turned in the opposite direction. It is now self evident that Americans live within a corporatized quasi-oligarchy, legitimized by a political machine backed up by a stunted media that no longer deems telling the truth as a necessary precursor for opening one’s mouth. Both Republicans and Democrats have shown themselves to be equally disinterested in the Ninth Commandment, and because of a fear of seeming partisan mainstream, journalists have done little to hold them accountable, becoming Marie Antoinette-esque in their reticence. No longer are politicians to be constrained by decorum, they will loudly make proclamations like the right of a rapist to have his child with the woman whose life he just destroyed: “When life begins with that horrible situation of rape, that is something God intended to happen,” as Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock proudly stated during the recent US elections.


It’s difficult to look at facts brought up in budgets, watchdog group reports, investigative journalism, or university studies and come to the conclusion that the US’s dedication to the freedom and the well-being of its populace is at the forefront of any of its leaders’ minds, or in the mission statements of the bureaucracy they have been hired to manage. This is not to say that the solution is that new representatives should be elected. The problem is deeper than that. The exponential increase of information produced by the Internet has not created a cultural divide so much as it has revealed just how much the populace is most assuredly not in control, and hasn’t been for a long time. Members of Anonymous, a product of this new information epoch, are not operating outside of the law, they are filling in for the law.


Since World War II the world, driven by the US, has been in a process of transformation from small, local and self-sufficient, to large, global and interdependent. Morality is something easily swept aside by the pressure of this maelstrom—it’s difficult to face wrongdoing when wrongdoing has become institutionalized. Is there a solution? One possible antidote is access to more information, not less. The only way for morality to blossom, and with it the only freedom which is meaningful, is for the dark corners of society and government to be illuminated. 2012 was the first year the CIA budget was ever disclosed as a matter of policy, but it was just the top-line budget number of $55 billion. We still don’t know what money gets spent where, and therefore why. The CIA’s budget is almost double that of the Department of Justice. The reactionary cry of “it’s national security” is no longer an excuse. There are other factors at play, the least of which is a bureaucratic government institution taking everything it can. By contrast, in 1963 the CIA’s budget was a measly $4.2 billion (in inflation adjusted dollars).


The sometimes silent, sometimes loud war raging across the world is a philosophical war. It’s a war of ideas, and perception. In the US we are rapidly unmaking the society that our forefathers fashioned as a result of the effects of the Great Depression and the subsequent mobilization of World War II. That society worked because it created through tax law a way for those who benefited from it the most, the very wealthy, to have a portion of their unimaginable wealth given back to the society which helped them create it. It was a brilliant method to stabilize the otherwise turbulent nature of capitalism, which had caused massive harm during the Great Depression. It was no utopia, but an economy was created where most people could work hard knowing they would be able to afford a home, plenty of food, a car, and education for their children.


That rubric has been slowly eroding, replaced by a propaganda-like message that the poor, somehow suffering from simple laziness, and unions, at fault for demanding living wages, are to blame for the nation’s woes. Never mind that with tax rates and union organizing at historic lows we’ll soon be back to where we were before the ‘30s, having lost years of progress. We’re already there in terms of compensation, with the gap between the incomes of owners and workers at its highest level since the New Deal was enacted. Perhaps the most telling statistic is this: in the US between 1942 and 1979 average wages rose $23,414. The richest ten percent of Americans saw 33 percent of that growth, and the 90 percent below them received 67 percent. In contrast, between 1980 and 2008 the average income rose $11,714, with the richest ten percent receiving 98 percent of that growth. The bottom 90 percent received two percent. The America we mythologize is close to being unmade.


The unwinding of the American way of life will only end when the rubicon of greed is crossed and decisions can be made based on data and intelligence, for the good of all people. It’s no longer possible to say that we are not all interconnected—through our economies, through an ever warming planet, and through an Internet that increasingly binds us together. Until intelligence conquers fear and greed, groups like Anonymous will only flourish, made up of the poor and alienated. It’s those in Anonymous and other groups which prove the innate character of humanity: hardworking, intelligent, and fair.


George Russell is a writer living and working in Los Angeles. His PopMatters essays have appeared in an anthology published by W.W. Norton. He can be reached at russell@popmatters.com.


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