This is what online civil disobedience looks like

Yesterday’s Guardian editorial tackles the first round of the new info war:

In a cyber attack known as Operation Payback, a group of online activists called Anonymous targeted the websites of companies that had treated WikiLeaks like a bad smell. Visa, MasterCard, Paypal and Amazon have all had their websites, and in some cases their services, affected. Welcome to the world of the chaotic good. It is chaotic. But is it good?

These companies all considered that their association with WikiLeaks damaged their brand… image, a reflection prompted in some cases by a helpful call from the US state department. In essence they are trying to have it both ways: pretending in their marketing that they are free spirits and enablers of the cyber world, but only living up to that image as long as they don’t upset anyone really important. At Amazon there is real confusion between the two roles: it refused to host WikiLeaks but continued to sell an eBook of the leaked cables online.

The hacktivists of Anonymous may be accused of many things – such as immaturity or being run by a herd instinct. But theirs is the cyber equivalent of non-violent action or civil disobedience. It disrupts rather than damages. In challenging the credit card companies and the web hosts in this way, they are reminding these businesses that their brand reputation relies not only on how the state department sees them, but also on how they maintain their independence in the eyes of their users.

Not all the targets of the internet activists are the right ones. The website of the Swedish prosecution authority, which is currently attempting to extradite Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, on rape charges, and the website of Claes Borgström, the Stockholm lawyer representing the two women who made the allegations, were also brought down. As our interview with Mr Borgström makes clear, these women are going through hell: first for being the alleged victims of sexual assault, and second for being accused of involvement in some form of CIA honeytrap. The women’s right to anonymity has been abandoned online as bloggers rake through their CVs. In Sweden, as in other countries, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, and the test, beyond reasonable doubt, is set high. Far better would be to let the legal systems in Sweden and Britain take their course.

In times when big business and governments attempt to monitor and control everything, there is a need as never before for an internet that remains a free and universal form of communication. WikiLeaks’ chief crime has been to speak truth to power. What is at stake is nothing less than the freedom of the internet. All the rest is a sideshow distracting attention from the real battle that is being fought. We should all keep focus on the true target.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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