December 9, 2010; Source: The Christian Science Monitor | Wikipedia’s description of itself reads in part:

WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organisation. Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists (our electronic drop box). One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth. We are a young organisation that has grown very quickly, relying on a network of dedicated volunteers around the globe.

Yesterday tens of thousands of “hacktivists” took to cyberspace in an effort coordinated by a group calling themselves “Anonymous” to deliver consequences to corporations that cut off services to Wikileaks this past week. Among those slapped by the so-called Operation Payback were Mastercard, VISA, Paypal, and a Swedish bank, Postfinance. The DDoS (distributed denial of service) cyberattack is thought to be the largest of its kind to date. It was globally launched and, apparently, loosely organized but it was effective in shutting down some fairly large targets, at least temporarily.

An attack of this kind requires that thousands of computers cooperate to target particular sites with simultaneous information requests. The Christian Science Monitor called it “A sort of cyber blockade.” According to Computerworld the attack has largely been facilitated by the use of one open source tool that was downloaded yesterday at the rate of 1,000 times an hour.

“Anonymous” reportedly operates on the principle of a “hive mind”—that is getting like-minded but otherwise unassociated individuals to act in concert. Greg Housh, an Internet activist from Boston associated with Anonymous, told CNN, “Anonymous is nonexistent. We don’t have members . . . If you want to go on [in a portal] and say, ‘Let’s attack this group’ and the majority of the people who are in that portal at that time agree, then that group will be targeted. If the majority of people present in the portal decide—at that time—that your suggested target is a dumb idea, nobody acts.”

The implications of this kind of activity are of course unfathomable at this point. But the story is epic. A small nonprofit with a charismatic leader, Julian Assange, pits itself against the secrecy culture of national governments and other powerful institutions. The leader travels from place to place and stays fluid to ensure as little interference as possible. The support system is apparently wide but loose. The organization releases classified or secret documents on multiple occasions but on the most recent release he is declared an enemy of at least one superpower and the chase begins.

A strange and at one time defunct Swedish rape charge is resurfaced after having been dismissed and he is then hunted by Interpol. He and supporters let it be known that if he is harmed, a cache of particularly harmful documents will be released. This, says Wikileaks, is its “insurance.”

The leader then turns himself in on the rape charge but one by one, the systems it uses to function day to day rescind their services and . . . observers cry foul—launching an unprecedented-in-scope coordinated cyber attack against major financial institutions. Meanwhile Assange remains behind bars without bail. To be continued . . .

The story is a game changer in ways that are still unfolding. U.S. rhetoric is at a high pitch. In Europe, many are befuddled by what they see as the overheated reaction of the U.S. to the release of what is termed, “low level diplomatic cables”. Seumas Milne of The Guardian in London commented that the official U.S. reaction “is tipping over toward derangement.” He concludes that there is “Not much truck with freedom of information, then, in the land of the free.”

John Naughton also of The Guardian observed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech a year ago about Internet freedom that was seen as a slap at China for its cyberattack on Google. “Even in authoritarian countries,” she said, “information networks are helping people to discover new facts and making governments more accountable.” In light of Clinton’s recent comments about the release being an attack on the international community, Naughton said, “that Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.”

Cyberattacks are illegal in many areas and one 16-year-old Dutch boy has, indeed, been arrested in connection to this campaign. But what are the other questions that will surface in relation to this story? Some comment that the campaign is basically a mob that is ignoring the ethics and long-term consequences of their action. Others say it is a protest like any other civil disobedience and warranted in the name of free speech.

What do you think?—Ruth McCambridge