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Anonymous activists gaining strength online

Using the Internet to hide, groups like Anonymous spread sensitive materials.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 2008

Protest: Disguised members of the Internet-based group Anonymous protested Saturday near buildings associated with the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles.

Chris Weeks/AP


Oakland, Calif.

Masked protesters led small, peaceful rallies in cities around the world Saturday as part of a protest by an online movement calling itself Anonymous. The organization declared "war" on the Church of Scientology in January because of the church's "suppression of dissent" on the Internet.

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Some tactics employed by Anonymous have proved controversial, including attacks against Scientology websites and unauthorized circulation of church materials. The church also accuses the movement of mailing fake anthrax letters and making bomb threats – charges rejected on Anonymous websites.

"I don't know who sent [the threats], but the point is that whoever are the ringleaders [of Anonymous], they are creating these emotions and are causing this to occur, and they have to be responsible for it," says Karin Pouw, spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology.

The church has a history of aggressive litigation, but this time it's up against a new type of Internet phenomenon that's evolved to evade court orders and censorship measures. Clever use of technology is allowing new activist groups like Anonymous and the whistle-blower website Wikileaks to agitate without a centralized leadership and an identifiable membership.

These tactics of anonymous activism have given a new voice to dissidents living under authoritarian regimes in Burma (Myanmar) and China. But similar methods are now challenging the legal systems of democratic governments as well, upsetting the ability of judges to balance freedom of speech against competing claims of privacy and public safety, argue some experts.

"It's one thing to defy communist elites in China. It's something else to defy legally enacted information controls in a democratic country," says Steven Aftergood, head of the Project on Government Secrecy based in the District of Columbia. "If you value privacy or copyright or proprietary business information, then you understand that there is a place for nondisclosure."

The Internet, from its creation, has inspired strong resistance to information controls of any sort. The rallying cry "information is free" is shared by both Wikileaks and Anonymous. Right now, they are prevailing.

Last Thursday, a Florida judge denied a request by the Church of Scientology for a restraining order that would have prohibited some individuals from protesting within 500 feet of Scientology buildings. The judge noted that the identity of those making threats could not be determined. Legal threats to enforce copyright have also failed to stop the posting of a video of Tom Cruise speaking at a Scientology event.