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Who is in Control on the Internet?

The power of the panopticon is exerted upon everyone contained through its architecture. It’s imprisoning power relies on the visibility of the imprisoned. All forms of institutional control rely on someone being in their place, doing what is expected of them. If you cannot see them, you cannot check up on them and make sure they are being diligent.

“Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up.” (Michel Foucault. Discipline & Punish (1975), Panopticism).

These surfaces, lights and gazes rely upon the material nature of our relations to each other. The Internet allows people to interact without relation to any material, physical location or structure, and it was not invented with surveillance in mind.

So far the methods of control put in place in reaction to illegal online activity are those of confinement and threat. Bradley Manning released classified military documents anonymously to WikiLeaks. He got caught because he told people about it, and he is now detained. Manning is now in a state of extreme observation: solitary confinement.

The Internet group Anonymous are also under threat of being policed. The FBI have put out 40 warrants to arrest people associated with the recent DoS attacks on PayPal, Visa, and MasterCards websites (info). Anonymous members use a program called LOIC to over-run the website with requests, which takes it down. If enough people are running LOIC, big websites can be pulled offline. Anonymous have likened this to peaceful protesting. Enough people have to be running the program to have any effect on the website.

“As traditional means of protest (peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, the blocking of a crossroads or the picketing of a factory fence) have slowly turned into nothing but an empty, ritualised gesture of discontent over the course of the last century, people have been anxiously searching for new ways to pressure politicians and give voice to public demands in a manner that might actually be able to change things for the better. Anonymous has, for now, found this new way of voicing civil protest in the form of the DDoS, or Distributed Denial of Service, attack. Just as is the case with traditional forms of protest, we block access to our opponents’ infrastructure to get our message across.” (link).

The people being caught are caught because they did not obfuscate themselves. The FBI warrants and the arrests may cause fear in enough people to stop the LOIC attacks, but people who know how to hide their web-traffic cannot be caught. The FBI cannot exercise their power upon these people. The FBI recently hired a security firm, HBGary, to ‘hack into’ anonymous and figure out who are organizing and carrying out these attacks. Anonymous responded by hacking HBGary’s website and replacing it with this message:

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Anonymous then leaked all of the companies emails. Anonymous works because it is a completely de-centralized network of people. People rise up and make IRC chat rooms to plot certain events. People take over where needed, leaders rise-up and go back into Anonymous obscurity once the job is done. “Anonymous does not have leaders. We are not a group, we are not an organization.” The nature of these actions do not fit within a panopticonic schema. Individuals do not have a place or a location, they cannot be seen or disciplined. The FBI are trying to police this realm but have, so far, been unsuccessful.

Anonymous wants it to be clear that the Internet is their domain, their realm; the officials do not have power over their actions. The people – anonymous – are the police. They know the architecture, and they exercise power through it.