Gabriella Coleman


In December 2010 when Wikileaks was stirring the pot of controversy with its hard hitting leaks, cowardly companies like PayPal and Visa caved into hidden but significant political pressure and blocked Wikileaks. This act of blatant censorship infuriated many citizens who expressed their dismay on every available online channel. Anonymous was well poised to harness the fury ball of anger and did so by coordinating one the largest DDoS campaigns the Internet has yet witnessed, variously called Operation Avenge Assange or Operation Payback.

Media attention was frenzied, catapulting this collective of collectives out of relative obscurity and into the international spotlight. In the New York Times, one of the Internet’s original patron saints—John Perry Barlow— prophetically cast the Anonymous campaign as “the shot heard round the world—this is Lexington.” In quoting Emerson’s poem “Concord Hymn,” Barlow hearkens to the first gunshot fired in the American Revolutionary war at the Battle of Lexington, which marked the outbreak of armed combat between the Colonies and the Kingdom of Great Britain. The information war, well under way, had seen a decisive battle.Months later, a slew of ordinary participants were arrested for their contributions.

For many who supported the protest, this once spectacular and exciting collective outcry has likely faded from memory. But for those facing the charges, it never went away. They have endured three years of expensive, time consuming and stressful battles against a mighty and well resourced US DoJ. Thanks to excellent legal support, they have accepted a plea bargain and the fine they are collectively facing is now a lot less than what it could have been: $86,000.

The DDoS is understandably a controversial political among geeks, hackers, and citizens. It has its limits and strengths and I myself am far from being a staunch fan. Whatever you may think of the DDoS (and I recommend looking out for this book on the DDoS by Molly Sauter), the Pay Pal 14 were driven by conviction. They have explained it with candor on their fundraising website: “They were not spreading malware, hacking servers, or even damaging the systems themselves. . . These people were making a statement and publicly exposing PayPal in front of their shareholders and the world on behalf of those of us who value freedom of information.” Their intervention also came at the right time helping to keep the issue of corporate censorship under the public limelight for a few precious weeks.

The time has come for those of us who believe in the right to dissent online to help them raise the funds so the can resume their interrupted lives.The government banks on the fact that activist movements, especially those running on spontaneity, often dissipate, fracture, and vanish. They bank on the fact that putting activists through an expensive legal wringer will cower many others into silent submission. We can prove them wrong. Lending support sends a strong message back: under adversity, the movement can preserve and take care of their own.

Yesterday I pledged $350 and if matched in 36 hours, I promised to double the amount. I was thrilled to see it took less than five hours for that to happen. I hope you consider donating what you can and spreading the word.