As Anonymous add Operation Cannabis to their ever growing list of campaigns is it time to unmask the internet vigilantes before they become the elite they're fighting against?
When I first used the internet to browse a primitive website in the late 1990s I experienced a sense of giddy satisfaction that never quite returned. I imagine that feeling was a microcosm of what John Perry Barlow felt when he wrote about the internet being a new frontier, a borderless reality without the constraints of capitalism. Fortunately for us Barlow is still alive and well, running the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is tirelessly fighting against everything he said the internet shouldn't be. In some respects humanity has already lost that chance to build the internet in to a reality far better than our own but, on the other hand, in some respects the fight for a free internet has only just begun.
To some readers this all sounds like a TRON revival club - but as the internet becomes the number one communication tool for people globally, especially as conventional tools like telephony are becoming one with the net, the balance of power for users, governments and groups becomes ever more delicate. That's where Anonymous come in ; supposedly the world's first super-consciousness, Anonymous are famous for being the hackers who attacked PayPal, Mastercard and VISA over blocked payments to Julian Assange's Wikileaks. Since then the hackers went on to champion revolutionary protest in Tunisia and Egypt, continue their ideological struggle against The Church of Scientology and even branch out in to drugs consultancy with #OpCannabis - the campaign to legalise marijuana for the benefit of humanity.
Okay that's a little farfetched - a cynic would argue that Anonymous created a few fancy videos, opened up some files on Photoshop and did a lot of tweeting. That is where the controversy really lies - how powerful are Anonymous and what, if anything, do they really want?
Anonymous aren't shy about their political leanings and, although they act as individuals within a group, they all seem to share an ideology of a free internet, a liberal state and democratic values. Whether it's supporting Egyptian revolutionaries or raising awareness of cannabis use, their values would never sit eye to eye with a diehard conservative.
That said, the argument can be made that Anonymous are becoming the elite on the internet. Their extensive knowledge of networking systems and how to hack them is troubling, at least for governments, and even being labelled as a terrorist organisation by the FBI hasn't persuaded them to pack in the LULZ and find something else to do. Much like the tech-savvy Egyptians and Tunisians who rose up during the Arab revolutions last year Anonymous represent a nomadic corner of the internet that seems to have no fear, despite numerous arrests. Whilst they risk becoming the elite they are tirelessly fighting against, they also seem to represent the spirit of the internet in its most historical form - as the new land of hope and glory that isn't restrained by the unchangeable norms of society: gender, ethnicity nor age. The most interesting developments are still yet to come and whilst it is self-evident that the internet has become a battleground between the digital gatekeepers of Western capitalist democracy and the pseudo-anarchistic tendencies of a group of masked teenagers with no leadership it is also equally clear that soon the fight will be coming to us, the average net user, as the battleground expands to China and Iran. Perhaps then we'll all start fearing for ourselves, rather than our digital liberties.