Given the track record of Anonymous, the faceless group of hacker vigilantes, it would be easy to dismiss their latest attack on the US Sentencing Commission as just another example of what they like to do for fun. But that understates the significance of the first demand they made. Their attack was presented as a response to the suicide of Aaron Swartz, hacktivist and co-developer of RSS and Reddit, who faced a potential 35-year prison sentence after using MIT’s network to download a large number of academic articles from the JSTOR repository. Swartz’s suicide is an emotive matter. One of the most popular petitions on the US Government’s official petition site asks for the removal of Swartz’s prosecutor from office, because of ‘overreach’. Underneath all the current emotion, a genuine legal question is being raised, about the role of the criminal law as a backstop to civil agreements over the use of networks. The Anonymous attack linked to a slick video that looks professional enough to be worthy of the villains in Bond movies. Over a barrage of warlike imagery, it would be easy to miss the significance of their first demand:
There must be reform of outdated and poorly-envisioned legislation, written to be so broadly applied as to make a felony crime out of violation of terms of service, creating in effect vast swathes of crimes, and allowing for selective punishment.
Laws may not change because of Anonymous‘ implied threat to out the ‘secrets’ of the US legal system. But this issue will not go away. In the US and other countries, there are diametrically opposed forces, absolutely rejecting, or insisting upon, a role for criminal law in protecting networks and intellectual property that is privately owned and managed. Choices need to be made, over the proportionality of punishment faced by individuals like Swartz, and why state prosecutors choose to act when there is no desire to pursue compensation amongst the private entities that have supposedly been wronged. Anonymous may very well be wrong, because they may not stand a chance if instigating war against a truly determined government. But private citizens and network providers need to be sensitive to how much they want, or need, the criminal legal system to overtake the role of contractual agreements. In the meantime, take a look at the Anonymous video, and judge for yourself just how serious, and angry, they are: