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Hackers—good and bad

Documentary>> We are a legion • directed by Brian Knappenberger

By Satyashree Banerjee
Published: Saturday 15 December 2012

A still from the documentaryIn 2009, a group of hackers—or hacktivists, depending on one’s political position—broke into the websites of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. The industry body which claims to safeguard recording artists’ rights had just won a landmark case against the downloading site Pirate Bay. The site was found guilty of facilitating extensive copyright infringement by a US court.

The hackers in question fired their most telling salvo against copyright on January 19, 2012, when the US Department of Justice clamped down on Megaupload, a site providing file sharing services. This led to what has been described as “the single largest Internet attack in its history”. The attack crippled the US government websites and entertainment industry portals for nearly a day. A few websites, in fact, took longer to get back online.

The activists at the helm of the cyber attacks are part of a loosely organised collective of hackers, Anonymous. The collective is the subject of a new documentary, We are a legion.

Anonymous’ membership is diverse. It ranges from advocates of Internet freedom and anti-copyright activists to Internet anarchists. It is to the documentary’s credit that in 90 minutes it does justice to the group’s multifarious character. Director Brian Knappenberger has interviewed a host of members of the collective, including those who participated in the Arab Spring and those who have taken up cudgels against US copyright laws.

“Their (the government’s) opinion no longer mattered because someone was out on the Internet kicking ass,” says Mercedes Haefer, a hacker who could face up to 15 years in jail for her alleged role in attacks on PayPal, the merchant banking site that facilitates online money transfer. Anonymous, in fact, has targetted Pay Pal several times. On November 5, as a global day of protest, it released confidential customer data, including 28,000 alleged account passwords that it says came from a hack of PayPal’s servers.

The film also goes into some of the nastier acts attributed to Anonymous, such as posting ugly images on epilepsy forums—bad in taste by any stretch of imagination. “Anonymous has done some pretty off-colour things in the name of getting cheap laughs, but that’s part of the culture,” an activist says in the film. Another strength of We are a Legion is bringing out both the positive and negative aspects of the group’s loosely organised nature. Being a leaderless, decentralised non-group, where anyone can act in its name, it gives Anonymous advantages but also disadvantages. It gives the group the ultimate alibi—“oh some people use our name, but it wasn’t really us”. But it also means black hat hackers can use the Anonymous brand to get media attention for their nefarious exploits.

While the film does tackle the diversity of Anonymous, it does not always unpack the different connotations of Internet freedom. It often ends up talking of freedom in a seductive and anarchist sense. And this prevents Knappenberger from treading into the troubled areas where an Internet activist becomes Internet vigilante. Take the case of Amanda Todd, the Canadian teenager who committed suicide after being bullied. Some Anonymous members exposed the identity of her tormentor. But they had got the wrong chap. Even if they had got the right guy, is that how we want society to function, with roving bands of online vigilantes, outside of the judicial process? Of course, this incident occurred after the film was shot but still is a good example of troubling aspect of Internet activism.

But let’s give the film its due. It has thrown sufficient light on modern day political phenomenon and is sure to provoke a debate. Its available on DVDs, and what’s more, on free-to-download sites. Highly recommended.

Satyashree Banerjee is a film editor in Kolkata

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