Freedom of speech and Anonymous: 256 shades of gray

Is free speech negotiable? It depends who you ask and what country you live in, but freedom of speech is a touchy topic these days. It's also considered an inherent human right to state your opinion in public without fear of punishment or censorship. Sadly, the reality of the situation is not so obviously black or white. Instead, free speech too often falls into middle ground where, love them or hate them, Anonymous dwells, protests, or hacks in 256 shades of gray. Free speech and information is non-negotiable to Anonymous.

 In America, the First Amendment does not protect someone who falsely yells FIRE in a crowded theater according to the clear and present danger test. Threatening posts are not protected speech if the message reveals a harmful intent. Other non-protected speech includes copyright protection, actual malice in defamation (libel, slander), and commercial speech like advertising. Wikipedia mentions other limitations to freedom of speech by country with exceptions as defined by the "harm principle" or the "offense principle" such as pornography or hate speech. There are also free speech zones. At times, it seems that the Internet is moving closer to being outside that zone.

Take for example: as soon as WikiLeaks is mentioned, people are all fired up either for or against them. The U.S. government seems to be debating if it should make felons of us all for simply reading WikiLeaks. To bring up WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and even Anonymous is risking a flame war; people are hot on both sides of the fence. Many folks do not fall in the middle about Assange, they either want to protect him or to kill him...GoDaddy was hosting a site called, but made the website owner take it down. Today, a British court set an extradition hearing for February 7 and 8 for Julian Assange whom Swedish authorities have accused of rape.

The U.S. still wants to get its hands on the WikiLeaks editor. One of the things that I most dislike about the entire situation is that the government seems to resort to scare tactics.

After the U.S. government got a court order [PDF] demanding that Twitter hand over information about people connected to WikiLeaks, and attached a gag order that prevented the company from telling anyone, Twitter didn't just roll over and pony up the information. Instead Twitter challenged the gag order in court, and then warned the targets that their data had been requested, giving them time and an opportunity to try and quash the order themselves. Twitter deserves a standing ovation for standing up for its users and the First Amendment. As security and privacy blogger Christopher Soghoian pointed out, Twitter's general counsel Alexander Macgillivray was most certainly behind this strong, pro-privacy move.

After WikiLeaks tweeted, "WARNING all 637,000 @wikileaks followers are a target of US gov subpoena against Twitter, under section 2. B," thousands of people stopped following them. Then WikiLeaks tweeted, "Too late to unfollow; trick used is to demand the lists, dates and IPs of all who received our twitter messages."

Tweets are archived in the Library of Congress and who anyone follows is public information, so it seems targeting all 637,000 WikiLeaks followers on Twitter may be a scare tactic by the U.S. government.


And that brings me back to Anonymous because they believe in freedom of speech and freedom of information. The group claims to be watching all governments around the world, planning to hack and deface more government websites  if a government supports censorship of information or disregards privacy in favor of spying. Topiary, a representative of AnonOps, "the elite arm of Anonmyous that spearheaded recent attacks on Tunsia," told Forbes that the group factors in corruption as well as urgency in deciding which governments to attack next. "We have the capacity to eliminate the infrastructures of any and all government sites on our watchlist," Topiary said. "We chose not to hack PayPal, Visa and Mastercard because what they did can't be considered corrupt, only cowardly."


Because everyone is anonymous, the group has some problems with credibility as well as with rebels among its anonymous ranks. Not everything that is claimed to be done in the name of Anonymous was OK'd by AnonOps. According to Forbes' Parmy Olsen, "There was confusion and anger this morning within the international hacking group Anonymous, and its new operational arm AnonOps, after two people purporting to represent the group hacked into the web site of Ireland's main opposition party Fine Gael."

Sure, there are things that I don't necessarily agree with about Anonymous, but I do believe in freedom of speech, privacy, and knowing what my government is really up to. I see civil liberties and freedom being slowly but surely stripped away in America. Love them or hate them, the groups' passion as "champions of the Internet" is somewhat admirable. And that's not an endorsement for anyone to attack anyone else. 

What might be the scariest aspect is that no one knows who Anonymous might aim their protest at next -- Yet in playing devil's advocate . . . even their DDoS attacks are more like busting out a window during a protest march. It's cyber protesting. Do you really think in those 256 shades of gray that Anonymous couldn't hack, break and steal from those sites after busting out the window if they chose to do so? To those people who comment things like Anonymous is only 4chan working from their mother's basement, the group states "Why we protest."

In fact, Anonymous is asking people to "Join us on January 15th for the first in a series of global protests in defense of WikiLeaks and freedom of expression. Stand with us to defend your freedoms." Their accompanying video is posted below.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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