Anonymous activists gaining strength online
Using the Internet to hide, groups like Anonymous spread sensitive materials.
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But the real game-changing decision came last month, when a California judge backed down from an attempt to shut down Wikileaks. A Swiss bank had sought an injunction against Wikileaks after it published leaked private bank records purporting to show complicity in tax evasion. The judge's shutdown attempt backfired, as Wikileaks gained notoriety and quickly rerouted readers to mirror sites. "The judge in effect said that the law is helpless to deal with this phenomenon," says Mr. Aftergood.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet the courts haven't been entirely neutered by Internet anonymity, Aftergood and others say. For one thing, sources of information can be revealed with the help of Internet service providers.
For a time, however, technology has outpaced the law to some degree, and that's OK, says David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass. "I wouldn't say that today, just because technology developments have made it practically impossible for legal systems and nation-states to have power over [determined] actors, that that's going to be the case tomorrow," he says.
Indeed, laws may eventually have to adapt. "It calls into question the approach that most legal systems have, which is to hold the individual liable and force them to pay monetary damages," says Dr. Ardia.
Ardia and others express concern that these new legal conundrums will provoke a harsh response that could curb free speech. For instance, in response to cyber-bullying online, a Kentucky state representative introduced a bill requiring anyone who wants to post a comment on a website to give ID and contact information.
Rather than new laws, self-policing and community codes of ethics may be more practical responses to anonymity's challenges.
In the case of Anonymous, a public chiding from one supporter may have helped redirect the movement. Mark Bunker, a longtime Scientology critic, posted an online video urging Anonymous to stop attacks against church websites. "I thought they'd lash out at me, and instead they've reformed and are doing an amazing job right now," he says.
The Church of Scientology released a video last week, however, claiming ongoing harassment, including 10 acts of vandalism and eight death threats against church members. An Anonymous website cast doubt on the claims.
For its part, Wikileaks has not been associated with violent threats or attacks of any sort. It does, however, stake out a position that recognizes no legal limits on free speech.
"History shows that censorship requires censors who define what is and who is 'good.' ... Such power is quickly corrupted," e-mailed Jay Lim, a spokesperson. "Knowledge is not a good. It is unique, in a class of its own, and as creator of all law, it must be placed beyond law."