Jan 24, 2011

Hacktivism gets political

Tommy Gavin talks to internet activists, self-dubbed “Anons” and representatives of the Pirate Party, a group advocating information freedom

What is Anonymous? Is it a relentless and merciless cabal of cyber-terrorists whose collective passing whims can wreak havoc on lives and organisations? Is it a gathering of online activists who champion free expression and fight tyrannical oppression? Or is it a horde of bored 15 year-olds whose attention span has been scrambled from unlimited access to the greatest information and communication resource in the history of cognitive thought? Anonymous is all of those things, and none. It is whatever the individual behind the monitor wants it to be, and if enough people join them, the shared will of Anonymous is exercised, for good or ill. Often times, this will is in the pursuit of Lulz, i.e. for the hell of it. Other times, it is to correct a perceived wrongdoing, such as the existence of scientology, or identifying Mary Bale as the person captured on CCTV throwing a cat in a wheelie bin in Coventry, UK. Most who claim the mantle though, at least have in common that they are people who post on websites like 4chan.org and Encyclopedia Dramatica (ED), with a shared sense of humour, jokes and nomenclature.

Earlier this month, a Fine Gael statement was released claiming that their U.S. based website was “professionally hacked” by “the Anonymous group,” even though the site was “absolutely secure” according to one FG spokesperson. That this was reported without correction betrays an ignorance of the internet by FG and a lack of basic research by the national media. In reality, while an Anonymous banner was left on the FG website, credit was claimed by “rapesauce” and “palladium”, thus they were not anonymous. Far from “absolutely secure,” a ridiculous phrase in itself, the “professional hack” was just JavaScript code posted as a comment, altering the code of the website to show the banner. It was a comically unsecure website. However, this was the first time Anonymous was commented on in mainstream Irish media.


Irish ‘Anons’ are not a new phenomenon; they have been publicly protesting the scientology headquarters on middle abbey street once a month for over three years now. They are not a large group, but they’re consistent and determined, and they genuinely want to warn people about what they see as an “exploitative cult”. Their ranks include disgruntled ex-scientologists and students & graduates of unnamed colleges who wear the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta. Most of them are not necessarily highly skilled at computer use, but still may be self-professed ‘nerds’. They dispute that Anonymous is anything other than a vague idea, a private joke; whether one crowd of people can legitimately represent the Anonymous more than another is in dispute even among them.

They are personally united by a shared contempt for scientology, and an ethos that dictates “if you’re going to have fun at someone else’s expense, they may as well deserve it.” (This is not shared by all who call themselves Anonymous). They reject that they are members of an organisation or group, but rather believe “it’s a methodology, a banner you can act under.” While there is a shared culture, well documented on ED, there is no organisational structure or hierarchy. In Ireland, those who claim to represent Anonymous are typically anti-scientology first, Anonymous second. So while the effort against scientology may be one international Anonymous project (project chanology), most Irish Anons feel no obligation beyond protesting scientology. They did bring placards supporting wikileaks to their latest protest as it coincided with global wikileaks support rally day, but they were discarded as the whole thing was seen as being too confusing.

The Pirate Party International (PPI) is another movement that has sprung from the internet, only it is a serious above-ground political movement centred around intellectual property law reform, and has 2 sitting members in European Parliament. None of those present at the scientology protest were aware that there is an Irish Party, which is testament only to its own inactivity. One Anon said that he would vote for them if they were politically serious because “they’re big into freedom of speech, have good computer literacy, and are likely to have a good level of scientific literacy which is something just so absent from our current crop in the Dáil.”

While the Irish Pirate Party have been mostly inactive over the last few months, there is a DU Pirate Party active on Trinity campus.

Founded two years ago by Theoretical Physics student Stephanie Hyland and now graduate Stephan Roantree, it took inspiration from the PPI , and actually predates the Irish Pirate Party. Still a provisional society, DUPP has over 150 members, but they are not a youth version of the Irish Pirate Party. Hyland explained “we see ourselves and the Irish Pirate Party as both being subsets of PPI, rather than us answering to them.” The Student response to the society has been mixed, with some students already being aware of what the society is about, while others confuse it for a pirate-appreciation society. “Law students were particularly interested due to our stance on intellectual property and patent law reform, but they have some opposition to joining political societies.” Member Padraig Coughlan disagrees that they are necessarily a political society though, as they do not give any endorsements or do campaigning; “While these are issues that greatly impact society as a whole, unfortunately not a lot of people feel that way, we’re predominantly just trying to raise awareness.” They run events like informal debates around contentious statements like “there are no abolutes” and throw file sharing parties where everyone brings a hard drive. Naturally, “the files are all in public domain, of course.”

The Irish Pirate Party has no discernable plans for the imminent general election, but the UK pirate party under Laurence ‘Loz’ Kaye has been extremely busy raising its profile, and in his words “punching above our weight.” Kaye describes himself as part of a second wave of activists coming into the party who are not very computer savvy,  but are drawn to it for its aims and beliefs, as he sees it as the only party that addresses issues regarding the internet. “My background is as a musician and one of the things I was particularly unhappy about was how the musicians union began to get involved in the same kind of lobbying as the music industry, cracking down on file sharing and punishing fans. The whole industry music body released a report on the 20th of January about how 2011 is the year they’ll crack down on music piracy, bringing legislation in countries across the world. It’s an international issue.”

Kaye was initially drawn to the party due to its opposition to the Digital Economy Act which threatened to cut people off the internet for file sharing. “I’m not out to do myself out of my own wage packet, we’re just asking for balance; the latest figures show that despite the complaints of the music industry, never in the history of recording has have so many units been sold. Physical units are down, but the internet presents a whole new distribution model that people are using to purchase music, but file sharing is hardly different than burning cd’s or making photocopies.” The party also wishes to see patent law reform, to prevent pharmaceutical companies from “holding the sick and dying to ransom.” According to PPUK figures, by removing the existing patent laws and using 33% of the money used to subsidise generic drugs to research new medicine, the same amount of research would be done, with medicine also being cheaper.
The PPUK is now making plans for contesting the Scottish parliamentary election, where they will have a greater chance due to the PR system, as opposed to the British first past the post. “I’ve talked to people in other parties, and some of them are beginning to look over their shoulder.”

That the Pirate Party International is a movement without borders means there is a lot of support for a national Pirate Party to draw on. This has been seen most radically in Tunisia where the Tunisian Pirate Party were active during the 20010-2011 protests. Pirate Parties across the world spread and translated first-hand information about the anti-government protests, and now, one of the party’s bloggers is the Secretary for Youth and Sports in the new transitional government, the first Pirate Party held national-level political office. That Fine Gael have provided an opportunity for a technology-savvy political party to capitalise on the gains of the Pirate Party International, coupled with Fianna Fáil at their lowest approval rating in their 85 year history, and, an upcoming election, seems to be something of a perfect storm for the Irish Pirate Party. However, they remained unavailable for comment at the time of print.

DU Pirate Party – http://www.pirates.ie/
Irish Pirate Party – http://pirateparty.ie/
UK Pirate Party – www.pirateparty.org.uk

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