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Songs on the Security of Networks
a blog by Michał "rysiek" Woźniak

Anonymous vs Corponymous

This is an ancient post, published more than 4 years ago.
As such, it might not anymore reflect the views of the author or the state of the world. It is provided as historical record.

Watching the situation with ACTA in Poland unfold during the last few weeks (and taking active part in it all, through my affiliations) got me thinking about Anonymous. Obviously, they played a huge part in what was happening, both positive and negative.

Positive – because they did help raise public awereness of ACTA (although saying there were no protests before Anons got involved just isn’t true). Negative – because through their “attacks” (which I would say were something between hacktivism and vandalism) on Polish Government websites they gave a perfect excuse for the Prime Minister to sign ACTA anyway, citing “not succombing to blackmail” as the reason. This played well with part of the public, and unfortunately helped push anti-ACTA activists towards the “pirates, terrorists” corner.

At this point I already started thinking about Anons as purely hedonistic bratty pricks, getting on the Anti ACTA bandwagon in an attempt to get a lame excuse for them having fun with vandalizing stuff on the Internet.

But then something increadibly curious happened. With the help from Anons from outside and from within Poland we were able to ask Anons to halt their attacks. And they did.

Ethical force of nature

Finally, it dawned on me – Anonymous may be hedonistic, impulsive, with small regard to effects of their actions, but they are still, for the most part, ethical in their own special way.

The closest description to how their actions feel from the outside is “a force of nature”, the unstoppable-antilope-herd-stampede kind, like the one that crushed Mufasa in “Lion King”.

However, even en-masse or in a herd, even with all the anonimity the Internet avails them, and even though they are (or at least, feel) virtually unpunishable for their actions (which could mean drifting towards the immoral), it is still extremely rare to actually see purely evil actions on their part! Or, using the “Lion King” analogy further, it doesn’t seem easy for the hyenas to start an Anonymous stampede against a cute little kitty.

Au contraire! Usually, it’s the hyenas that get stampeded because they already hurt some cute little kitty. Like the Police abusing their power.

Of course the actions undertaken by Anons may lead to both good and bad, but still – they are not usually undertaken with pure evil in mind. Attempts to rush Anons against some personal enemy usually end in the “not your personal army” category, sometimes even backfiring at the attemptee.

Without a doubt the single most important reason for Anons to do something is “Teh Lulz”, and how spectacular or notable it might become. But it seems there is an unwritten and unspoken rule that it can’t be pure evil (however defined).

The Corponymous

This is not how corporate people work. What they do is “serious business”, and it seems that the higher one ranks in a corporation, the more the term “evil” fits in their job description.

However, there are many similarities between those two groups of people. Like the Anonymous, corporate people are also virtually anonymous, almost completely anonimized by the behemoth they work for. Like the Anonymous, actions of a single corporate employee are almost completely irrelevant – it’s the herd, the sheer mass of the whole behemoth thrown in a single direction that makes a change. Anonymous are more-or-less indemnified for their actions by technology, corporate employees are indemnified by law. It’s extremely hard to change the direction of Anonymous stampede – and it’s close to impossible to change the direction of a corporate entity. Anonymous flock behind symbols, the Corponymous execute their actions under the aegis of corporate logos.

So, with all the similarities, how come the Corponymous do not exhibit the same level of morality in their day-to-day work the Anonymous seem to do in their actions?

Chaos vs Structure

There are some crucial differences that might help explain this, at least in some part.

First of all, while people can apparently join and leave both groups whenever they like, it’s much harder in the case of the Corponymous. This is a job. This is a serious commitment, and walking away from it would have huge repercussions. That’s not the case with Anonymous, where everybody can join-in and drop-out as they please, without any hassle. As soon as an Anon doesn’t like what he or she is doing, he or she stops.

Secondly, corporations are very hierarchical entities – something Anonymous (by design) is very definitely not.

This has many consequences, not the least of which is (apparent or factual) indemnification for actions done in the name of the whole. Anons are hard to track, but are not indemnified, and they are well aware of that. The Corponymous however can, on a court hearing, always say they were ordered to.

This is maybe the crucial point. Within the Anonymous, the responsibility for actions of every single person in the herd lies squarely with that particular person. The Corponymous, however, perceive that the responsibility for their actions is blurry. And thus, maybe even more importantly, they can rationalize any action they undertake, however atrocious, as not being their fault.

A New Hope

That speaks volumes about the human race in general. And it speaks well!

Even completely anonymous and seemingly untraceable (thus not threatened by any punishment), even when claiming to act completely hedonistically, sometimes even acting against the law, people tend to act according to some ethos, at least in groups, as long as they are not granted the leisure of off-loading the responsibility for their actions on somebody else.

That seems counter-intuitive, as most of us would feel that the inevitability of punishment is what keeps people from doing evil. Turns out that for a lot of people, even in such a shady group as Anonymous, the sheer fact of being the responsible party, is enough of a moral incentive.

The bad part is that a lot of the society building blocks today are strongly hierarchical, and thus allow responsibility off-loading. Major religions also tend to create conditions for it, either with a distant deity that “has a plan”; with vague and ambiguous, obsolete rules; or with instructions to unconditionally follow the judgement of a select few individuals.

There’s a reason why some of the most heinous acts in human history had been done under the banner of a government or a religion.

The great part, however, is that we all seem to have a built-in moral compass, and we do actually use it, even when there is nothing that can make us. And that is something I am very grateful Anonymous shows.