I recently became involved in an online discussion regarding the "4Chan" group "Anonymous." During the discussion, I did something so uncharacteristic and unusual that it made me really stop and think about the entire Anonymous phenomenon. I censored myself and deleted comments I had made about Anonymous. None of these comments were particularly negative towards Anonymous, but they weren't exactly flattering praise, either.
I've been on the internet since before it really became commercially available, back when it was mostly something that academics and military personal had access to. The internet forum flame war has existed the entire time - and a lack of civil behavior that is arguably caused by being anonymous (not "Anonymous" with a capital "A") has been a side-effect of passionate online debate since the start. You could see the phenomenon in effect even before Usenet, on small local electronic Bulletin Board Systems.
During my time online, I've experienced serious threats from a variety of sources. Many of them have been the hollow and empty words of angry and impotent opponents in online debates. But at least one of them was a death threat by a guy who ended up going to prison on a well publicized string of crimes, including murder.
When I was younger and dumber, I attended a gathering where the online pencil-necked geek I had been arguing with online showed up, only to find out that he was more like a knuckle-dragging gorilla. A high-speed chase ensued, and I was fortunate enough to evade the guy.
Events like these have made me somewhat cautious in embracing Mark Zuckerberg's vision of a world without personal privacy. They've also made me a lot more aware of what I say. I am more self-moderating in my online conversations now than I was when I was younger.
Now, some people would say that this is one of Mark Zuckerberg's arguments for why privacy isn't such a great thing. If there is something I am going to say and I don't because of fear of some sort of repercussion, doesn't that make conversation and discourse more civil and polite? Isn't that the recipe for a friendlier, happier society?
But isn't it ironic when it's a bunch of faceless individuals, hiding behind the mask of anonymity, who cause another individual to re-think what he or she might say online? And that irony is only the tip of the potential iceberg of moral morass which the Anonymous group represents.
In the online discussion I referred to above, when I deleted messages about the Anonymous group, I felt that some of the other people in the thread might respond, "Don't take yourself so seriously. Anonymous has bigger fish to fry than going after you." But that is exactly what makes Anonymous frightening. They're not centrally organized or controlled, and they don't have a set of hard rules and ethics that guide their conduct. They're not even really a "they" or even an "it." Anonymous actions are frequently almost a "flash-mob" kind of event.
In the late 80s, I crossed a hacker/cracker group and irritated one of the senior members of that organization. He made various threats to me, including the threat of giving me bad credit until I was 90. He illustrated his ability to make my life difficult by doing things to various utilities that I paid for at the time. His threats were not a paper tiger.
The concern of crossing Anonymous seems similar but far more potentially damaging. Recently, a woman posted an e-Bay auction of her sons' Beyblade collection, along with a picture that showed one son, the eldest, crying while the youngest glared with murder in his eyes. The kids had damaged the mother's tub playing with the Beyblades. In what was a particularly satisfying example of the power of Anonymous "justice," the 4Chan members caught wind of this auction, hopelessly derailed it, and proceeded to find detailed personal information about the mother and post it online in various forums.
It's easy for us to get caught up in celebrating the vigilante justice that Anonymous frequently achieves. I was among the angry mob that supported the original Anonymous response toward the Beyblade auction. After all, what the parents were doing when the children were busy destroying a tub with plastic spinning tops? Was the Beyblade auction a poor parenting choice? Absolutely. But should it have gone viral and appeared in national news? In this case, I think the punishment far exceeded the crime.
There has been a lot of chatter about what should be done about this growing phenomenon, including some attempts at enforcement against Anonymous members, with various degrees of success. In many ways, the issues here tie into other cyber-events like the Wikileaks circus and the Pirate Bay trials. Even larger and more significant issues, like the Egyptian "shut down" of the internet, may illustrate the futility of putting these genies back in the bottle. Although Egypt shut down the internet for Egypt, that didn't stop information from leaking out of the nation and onto the internet for the rest of the world. Right now, Libya is dealing with the same issue.
The Anonymous movement is largely unstoppable, and their collective moral compass, or lack thereof, is the only thing that moderates how they wield their considerable potential power. They can effectively stifle journalists they do not agree with, affect the decisions of corporations and governments, wield incredible influence over elections and public offices, and even tell us how we should parent our children. Except for those of us who truly live in glass houses and without any fear of having every detail of our lives exposed publicly, we can be effectively controlled by Anonymous.
I've asked TechRepublic to post this article anonymously. Many of you will attempt to guess who I am by my writing style and tone. You're wrong. I'm not who you think I am. I just wrote this in another blogger's style and asked for it to be published in the TechRepublic Out Loud blog to throw everyone off. The reason for this is clear: I have no desire to cross Anonymous.
There are a lot of people who would say any organization that can shut me up is a good one. I'd argue that any organization that can shut me up is a potentially very dangerous one. Imagine if the people involved in exposing Watergate had passed on breaking the story because they were afraid of Anonymous digging up and exposing any dirt in their past? Isn't this the real world we're rapidly approaching, if not at already?
What do you think? Is Anonymous mostly a bunch of harmless script kiddies involved in petty internet pranking? Is it the responsibility of anyone with any public presence to be consistently flawless in everything they do or to risk being exposed by Anonymous? Or is Anonymous a social phenomenon with the potential to fundamentally change the rules of how society interacts with one another, quite possibly to the detriment of key cornerstones to the principles of freedom and liberty?
Sonja Thompson started at TechRepublic in October 1999. She is a former Senior Editor at TechRepublic.