Late in the afternoon of Jan. 19, the U.S. Department of Justice website vanished from the Internet. Anyone attempting to visit it to report a crime or submit a complaint received a message saying the site was unable to load. More websites disappeared in rapid succession. The Recording Industry Association of America. The Motion Picture Association of America. Universal Music. Warner Brothers. The FBI.
By nightfall, most of the sites had come back online, but the people responsible for the outages had made their point. They'd landed what they hailed as the biggest blow yet in an escalating war for control of the Internet, and in one of their online command centers, "Phoenix" and his associates were celebrating.
Phoenix, a college student, is a member of Anonymous, the loose coalition of hackers, pranksters and other creatures of the Internet who have made headlines over the last 13 months for attacks on the computer systems of a wide range of targets: MasterCard, Visa and PayPal; the San Francisco public transit system; a Texas think tank; Sony; a host of computer-security companies; authoritarian governments in Tunisia and Egypt.
Phoenix wouldn't call himself a "member," of course. Much like Occupy Wall Street, a movement with which it has many ties, Anonymous technically has no official membership, hierarchy or specific agenda. Some "anons" do wield more influence than others and the resulting resentments have led to bitter internecine feuds, but its overall lack of an official power structure is essential to its identity and perhaps its survival. As Anonymous put it in a taunting statement to NATO, another recent object of its unfriendly attentions, "You can't cut off the head of a headless snake."
The snake seems to have a certain sense of direction, however, as the Jan. 19 attacks suggested. The inciting incident took place earlier that day in the hills outside Auckland, New Zealand, when local police landed two helicopters on the lawn of a man who calls himself Kim Dotcom and owns Megaupload, a hugely popular online service that enables people to share and store movies and other media for free.
Authorities shut down the site and arrested Dotcom and six colleagues, accusing them in a 72-page indictment of engaging in acts of "massive worldwide online piracy" that inflicted $500 million in damages on copyright holders while bringing in more than $175 million in profits.
The news spread quickly. A message went out on Anonymous Twitter accounts exhorting people to attack the Justice Department and several piracy-fighting trade groups. By clicking on a link, they could launch a page that asked them to identify a target. Thousands typed in the address of the Justice Department site and clicked enter, bombarding it with a fusillade of meaningless commands. Overwhelmed, the site froze and dropped offline.
In the chat network where Anonymous coordinated the attacks, the virtual warriors declared victory with a military phrase: "TANGO DOWN."
Part war, part game. Given the culture of the Internet, it's reasonable to assume that many of those who responded to Anonymous' call were teenagers. The software used to fire these Internet missiles was the Low Orbit Ion Cannon, a name lifted from the video game "Command & Conquer." Yet the consequences of firing it were real -- a major law enforcement agency's web site was temporarily crippled, leaving the agency to observe that there had been a "degradation in service."
Last year, 14 anons were arrested in the United States for using the Ion Cannon to attack PayPal. Some now face the possibility of 15-year prison sentences.
Phoenix wasn't around when the Jan. 19 attack went down, but later that night, I found him in an Anonymous chat room and asked him to explain the motivations behind it.
"You've heard Anons say before that this is a war," he said. "A full scale information war. That's not mere propaganda, many regard that as a perfectly accurate description. And the stake at play is, simply, 'Who will control access to information? Everyone or a small subset?'"
In case it wasn't clear, he then labeled that subset: "The government."
This struggle for control of the Internet goes back years, but it reached a crescendo just the day before the attack on the Justice Department, when Wikipedia went dark in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, the controversial anti-piracy bills that were working their way through Congress. Google collected 4.5 million signatures on a petition against the bills. Mozilla redirected traffic from its sites. And thousands of other protesters, from Tumblr and WordPress to Some Guy with a Blog, blacked out their sites, took to the streets and posted messages opposing the legislation, saying it would hurt their business and amounted to censorship.
Across the battle lines stood film studios, music labels, pharmaceutical companies and other businesses intent on defending their copyrighted property from illegal sharing at a time when the Internet has made it possible for, say, a digital copy of "V For Vendetta" -- an anon fave and the source of their iconic grinning Guy Fawkes masks -- to travel from an iPad in the United States to a piracy site in Brazil to another viewer's laptop in Korea.
These companies have faced a tricky problem: How do you sue a piracy site when it’s based in another country, especially one with looser intellectual-property laws? The bills' answer: You don't. You go after their enablers -- websites that drive traffic to the piracy sites by posting links to them, even if they only do so inadvertently. Critics argued that the cost of getting rid of these links would drive smaller sites out of business.
Two days after the protests, in the face of public outrage and lobbying efforts from the tech sector, Congress shelved SOPA indefinitely. But that doesn't mean the war is over. As one Anonymous tweet warned about SOPA: "It can be brought back anytime. The bill must be KILLED."
Like the web companies involved in the protests, anons tend to argue that anti-piracy legislation could send the Internet down an ever-tightening spiral of government control. Many anons go further, portraying such bills as deliberate assaults on the right to free speech. They say they oppose anti-piracy efforts on idealistic grounds, not that they don't enjoy a bit of pirated entertainment from time to time. In general, obeying the law isn't their priority. "The Internet is the Wild West," Phoenix said on the night of the attacks, "and Anonymous will fight against any attempt to tame it."
That conversation with Phoenix was not my first. All of our communications took place online, mostly in the networks of chat rooms where anons plan their attacks, and I had come to think of him a messenger from the Internet underworld: He had one foot in the world of "hax0rs" -- hacker-speak for hackers -- and one in the world of capital letters and correct spelling.
He was like a hacker Hermes, moving freely between the realms of the living and the dead, except that in this case the realm of the dead was a dominion of cyberspace in which the dead possessed an unusual degree of expertise in massively multiplayer online video games and porn.
Altogether, I spoke with more than 30 anons, and in some respects, their attitudes couldn't have been more different, but one thing seemed to hold them together. They saw the Internet as their homeland, their home. Among them were Phoenix, Xyzzy and Gregg Housh. Together, their stories roughly trace the rise of Anonymous and the battles leading up to what Phoenix calls the war.
THE ORIGINS: XYZZY
Xyzzy said he was in his early twenties, lived in the Boston area, and described himself as an out-of-work computer guy. He had been around Anonymous since its beginning about a decade ago, and as far as I could tell he spent all his time online. There was a two-week stretch in which I instant-messaged with him for hours every night, and I assumed he was going out of his way to talk to me until he told me he was simultaneously IMing with three other people and participating in a seven-person video chat on Skype.
Some anons talked about the Internet as their homeland. For Xyzzy, the Internet had literally given him a home. In 2008, he said, the Secret Service pulled him out of a classroom at school after he played a little joke on the government by spamming a .gov website with "KILL OBAMA" rants. ("Not a good idea," he reflected.) His parents kicked him out of the house, and some friends in Anonymous took him in. He considered one of them his "Internet mom" and said he thought of her as "kinda better" than his real mom.
He said he was about 12 or 13 when he discovered the Internet, and couldn’t really remember what life was like before that. "I wasn't anything," he wrote. "I was just a nerd who never really spoke up."
The Internet gave him balls. And a mouth. In the chat rooms where he hung out he learned how to mock people and later found he could use this skill "irl", where he went from "never talking in school to making fun of everyone who picked on me for being nerdy."
He also learned how to "socially engineer" people -- manipulate them. Often, he said, that meant calling an email provider and tricking the friendly lady who answered the phone into handing over a password to someone's account, enabling him to break in, steal the person's credit-card number and sell it.
And he learned how to "troll." At the time, if you didn't troll you weren't really an anon. Trolling is the art of deliberately irritating people until they flip out or otherwise react in a way that generates laughs, or "lulz." It is the bedrock of Anonymous culture, and in the early 2000s there were dozens of "trolling gangs" roaming the back alleys of the Internet.
Xyzzy wanted me to understand that they pretty much established the Anonymous mindset. He stressed that when Anonymous started, it was made up "jerks," and he meant this as a compliment. And he was especially insistent that I appreciate the historical significance of one group of jerks in particular, the Penis Pumpers For Lyfe.
The Penis Pumpers were "Anonymous before Anonymous was Anonymous," Xyzzy said. They were a band of tricksters who hung out in IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, a sort of underground city of the web that continues to dominate the Anonymous landscape.
If IRC is a city, then its "networks" are the buildings. Each network is comprised of chat rooms, or channels. The Pumpers had their own channels and would join, say, the NHL room and "bitch about hockey, something they had no clue about, just to piss people off." They'd take over other people's channels, ban the real owners, impersonate them and use the stolen personas to troll. "Whatever worked to mess with the intended target," said Xyzzy.
Sometimes the jokes went to harsh extremes, and that hasn't changed. In 2010, an 11-year-old girl nicknamed Jessi Slaughter issued a YouTube threat against "haters" who had started an Internet rumor about her. She said she'd "pop a Glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy." As a Gawker account put it, "Ha ha."
Unfortunately, as Gawker went on to note, the response went beyond "ha ha." People found her real name, address and phone number. They passed the information around. A bomb squad showed up to her school after a suspicious package arrived in the mail. Encyclopaedia Dramatica, a website that chronicles the lore and pranks of the Internet in the fuck-you-it's-funny style of the Internet itself, published an item on how to troll her. "Tell her dad that we are going to beat her up." "Tell her to kill herself."
Jessi responded with another video. In this one, she was seen crying and whimpering while her father crouched in the background, screaming at the camera and shaking his fist. His awkward threats would become memes. A year later, he was arrested for punching Jessi in the mouth, and six months after that, she posted a video saying she'd been institutionalized and was living in foster care. Last summer, her mother wrote on Facebook that the father had died of a massive heart attack. Someone posted a screenshot of the message on FunnyJunk.com.
Obviously there isn’t anything political about relentlessly picking on an 11-year-old, but Anonymous has used many of the same schoolyard tactics to pick on much more powerful adversaries. At its most basic level, trolling is about humiliating people who seem to take themselves too seriously or pretend to be something they're not: 11-year-old girls, corporate executives, whoever. The troll jabs at them until they jab back, exposing their vulnerabilities, then jabs at those weak spots until they do something rash and truly embarrass themselves.
Xyzzy told me he and another anon once trolled someone at an antiwar rally in Boston. In an indication of how much Anonymous has evolved since then, he said they attended the rally not to join the protest but to screw with the protesters. Xyzzy told his friend he bet he could "troll out" the first guy he saw who was obviously there just to pick up girls.
"So we got near the guy and the guy makes the first move," wrote Xyzzy. "He rants at us about peace and I tell him, 'Look, dude, I don't give a fuck.' He jumps on me about how I'm the problem with the world today."
"And I just turn it on him," Xyzzy continued. "How HE is the problem with the world today cause he can't leave people alone and needs to stick his retarded nose in other people's business. He clearly is upset so I keep at it saying how he doesn't know the first thing about what it means to stand up for what you believe in. And he responds with how he'll show me how he stands up for what he believes in."
At this point in the story, Xyzzy paused to note that while he is under 6 feet tall and "a fat kid," his target stood about 6-foot-4 and looked like he worked out. Xyzzy was not to be intimidated, however. On the Internet, he had learned he could use his wit to humiliate pretty much anyone. Years after the protest, the typical Anonymous trolling target would be the government-corporate matrix, not just some bro at a peace rally. Whatever. Xyzzy isn't picky. He's happy as long as he's having a laugh. By the time he'd finished with the bro at the peace rally, the bro was in police custody.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of anons: those who want to change the world and those who are in it only for the lulz. Xyzzy moved closer to the first group over time, but he remains a lulz man at heart. One of his friends, however, appeared to have transformed himself completely, leaving behind a trail of self-serving crimes. He was part of a group of anons whose elevated stature in the community had earned them the derisive label "leaderfags," and when Xyzzy met them they convened in their own private channel, from which they exerted a certain amount of influence over the rest of Anonymous. Exactly how much influence is debatable, but Xyzzy, for one, called them the "Illuminati of the Internet" and described his friend, with perhaps just a touch of hyperbole, as "the Godfather."
The "Godfather" is a 35-year-old computer engineer who lives in a blue-collar suburb of Boston. In November, I visited his home, a wood-frame house up the street from a convenience store and a laundromat. Parked in the driveway was a black Scion emblazoned with the words "Geek Choice" and a phone number: 1-800-GEEK-HELP . A small box of business cards was mounted to the side. I took one. "Computer problems?" it said. "We come to you."
A shy, pretty woman, the Godfather's girlfriend, led me to an upstairs bedroom where the Godfather was seated at an incredible array of computer monitors. He had a thin build, a bemused expression and a loud, direct voice. He said he needed food, so we hopped aboard the Geekmobile. I rested my feet on a pile of empty Pepsi bottles.
At a nearby restaurant, the Godfather ordered a chicken sandwich and told me that a would-be whistleblower had recently come to him with information that could potentially destroy the reputation of a certain international media mogul. He said he needed to figure out how to protect the whistleblower before pulling the trigger. "Before I'm dead," he said, "I want his empire to be in ruins."
The Godfather's name is Gregg Housh, and his sense of himself as someone capable of molding the world to his vision dates at least to 2008, when he played a key role in helping Anonymous organize a series of protests against the Church of Scientology. Following his involvement in these demonstrations, Scientologists uncovered his identity and took him to court, which had the unintended effect of putting him in a good position to talk to the press.
Housh, an excellent talker, became a de facto Anonymous spokesman. Confident and articulate, with a little gray in his hair, he started giving interviews to The New York Times, CNN and other outlets. (For his part, Housh rejects the label of spokesman, taking pains to stress that no one person can speak for Anonymous as a whole.)
As a protest organizer, he also made connections in the Boston Police Department, which came in handy earlier this year when demonstrators set up tents on a plot of green across the street from the city's Federal Reserve building. In the early weeks of the Occupy movement, Anonymous essentially served as a publicity arm, using its Internet fame to spread the word at a time when few traditional media outlets were paying attention. Housh worked his media connections, established a cellphone-to-cellphone rapport with the Boston police superintendent and cultivated relationships with political operatives. At one point he arranged for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to visit the camp, then led the governor on a guided tour. I watched him give a similar tour to the state treasurer and engage in some friendly ribbing with a city councilman, and it occurred to me that he'd make a pretty good politician himself.
Housh has not always been interested in politics. Far from it, he said he used to care only about "amassing as much stuff as I possibly could." When he was growing up in Dallas, his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother alone to care for him and his sister, who has cerebral palsy. Housh quickly came to appreciate the value of money. He also started thinking about ways to make it that didn't involve sweating over a fryer at McDonald’s.
At around age 10, he discovered a glitch in a video game at an arcade near his house: When he pressed a button at the right moment, the machine would spit out a token. He did this a few times, ambled over to the token machine and unloaded his spoils at a discount. Before long he had three friends working for him in two cities. He later realized this technically qualified as racketeering.
Cunning and rebellious, he might have ended up writing bad checks or ripping off insurance companies for a living, but when he was 14 his mother gave him his first computer. Within a half-hour, he says, "every part that could be separated or unplugged was sitting on the living room floor." By 16, he had dropped out of school and joined a software piracy gang. He drew on the combined skill set of the hacker and the con man, employing the techniques of "social engineering" to get people to fork over stolen software and access to Internet servers.
In 2001, the FBI caught up with him and he served three months in a federal prison. When he was released, he had a hard time finding himself. He was afraid to reenter the criminal underworld and unimpressed with what passed for fun outside of it. And then he found 4chan.
Founded in 2003 by a 15-year-old named Christopher Poole, 4chan was initially a collection of forums where people could discuss anime and Japanese comics. By the time Housh arrived in 2007, the website, particularly a section called "random," had devolved into a reeking cesspool of gore, porn and insanity. In attempts to capture its unique charms, reporters have likened it to a stall in a boy's bathroom, a locker crammed with fireworks and Hustlers and maybe a copy of "Mein Kampf," even the id.
There was only one rule -- no child porn. Reports suggest it was lightly enforced. A quick perusal of the first page of "random" on the evening of Dec. 19, 2011, yielded a picture of a woman's crotch, a picture of a woman's ass, a request for pictures of the feet of "pre-teen models/non-models," a poster recruiting people to flood a rival website with "filth and porn," two rape jokes, several racial slurs, a picture of someone vomiting and a picture of Kim Jong Il accompanied by the comment, "Good night, sweet prince."
Conversations with 4chan regulars made it clear that this was a quiet evening.
During the past five years, some of the lighter culture of 4chan has seeped into the mainstream: The pictures of cats with misspelled captions (lolcats), those links that trick you into playing that obnoxious music video (rickrolling). These are "memes" and they generate "lulz." In Housh’s day, the lulz abounded. If you wanted "epic lulz," you could hack into someone's emails and use the stolen information to troll. Or you could "d0x" someone (publish documentation of his identity). Or "DDoS" someone's website (flood it with traffic and knock it offline). Or "swat" someone (get an unsuspecting victim to turn on his webcam, then call the police and "lol" as a SWAT team kicks down the door).
All of these activities were "raids," and though people usually planned them in the IRC networks, they assembled their raiding parties on 4chan. One thing made them possible: the site allowed you to post stuff anonymously. People began calling themselves "Anonymous," which became a meme of its own. You began hearing phrases like "Expect us" and "We Are Legion," which have become enshrined in the culture's lexicon.
Housh's first adventure as an anon turned out to be a high watermark in 4chan history: a giant raid on the online multiplayer game "Habbo Hotel." At a predetermined hour on July 12, 2007, he and hundreds of other anons logged into the game and selected the same avatar from the character menu: a black guy with an Afro. Then they crowded around the virtual swimming pool, effectively blocking the other players from using it, while proclaiming that the pool had been closed "due to AIDS." Other anons gathered on the patio and arranged themselves into the shape of a swastika. This was called a "swastiget," Housh explained to me matter-of-factly. "You get a swastika on a website or a piece of software that people have to see."
Even in those days, one could have conceivably justified many of the 4chan pranks on moral grounds, and when he recounted the "Habbo" tale, Housh attempted to do so, sort of. He said that by creating a character that arguably looked like a racist white guy's idea of a black guy, the "Habbo" design team had done something "kind of racist, so we decided to go be racist to them." There was also a news story making the rounds about a hotel in Alabama that had banned someone with AIDS from the pool.
Or something. Mostly, the raid was just fun to do, Housh admitted. Anonymous was still all about the lulz.
Later that year, Anonymous brought down the website of a white-supremacist radio host and used the technique of "pedobaiting" to root out a child molester in Canada. Some anons were beginning to see themselves as a force for justice. The real transformation, though, happened in February 2008, with the birth of a movement that blended the ironic sensibility of the Internet with the earnestness of an antiwar rally. In homage to its 4chan origins, it was dubbed "Chanology."
"THE INTERNET IS HERE"
In "The Prince," Machiavelli warns the reader that "a violator of the property and women of his subjects" will be "hated above all things." In 16th-century Florence, an example of such property might have been a plot of farmland or an ox. In the Chanology War of 2008, the property in question was a video of Tom Cruise talking about Scientology and "showing himself to be the insane person he is," said Housh.
Somehow the video had made its way from Scientology's offices to the Internet, where it had generated untold quantities of lulz. So when Scientology's lawyers pressured YouTube into taking it down, anons went into a frenzy. They found it laughable and outrageous that a religion founded by someone who claimed to believe in a galactic dictator called Xenu could exercise so much control over a source of information as important as the Internet.
During the next week, Housh and a few cohorts made two videos of their own. One declared war on Scientology. The other specified what that war would entail: protesting in front of Scientology centers around the world.
Housh says he thought maybe a few people would show up and act like jerks. "I thought it would be good for a couple weeks of trolling," he said. It turned out he had seriously underestimated people's love of the Internet or their contempt for Scientology or both.
On Feb. 10, 2008, thousands gathered outside Scientology centers in 142 cities around the world. They wore Guy Fawkes masks and blasted "Luma Luma" on boom boxes. They shouted Internet insults. They held up signs saying "OH FUCK: The Internet Is Here." More protests followed, and over time what started out as a prank turned into something more serious.
The movement attracted fervent Scientology critics, including a number of defectors. As Housh and other anons got to know those people, they gained more insight into the organization and refined their talking points to target what they saw as its weak spots. Tory Christman, a prominent ex-Scientologist, told me Anonymous helped alter the balance of power between the church and its critics. "Before Anonymous, there were literally about four or five of us who would talk to the interviewers," she said. "Now, there's tons."
A new idea took hold: As one anon told me, Chanology gave people the impression that "a thousand malcontent nerds can change the world by going out and yelling something."
For Housh, the turning point came when he heard that two anons had "kidnapped" a young woman from a Scientology center in Florida. She had approached them at a protest and handed them a business card with a desperate message scrawled on it: "Want out."
When I asked Xyzzy about Chanology, he said he initially snickered at the idea: "From what I gathered from the Internet it was just a hug box and people wanting to be important." In fact, many anons downright hated it. They mocked the protesters as "moralfags," and it wasn't the "fag" part that was meant to be derogatory. In Anonymous lingo, "fag" is basically the equivalent of "dude."
A conflict was brewing -- moralfags vs. lulzfags -- and over lunch one day in Boston I asked Housh which side had prevailed.
He interrupted his attack on an overdone steak and flashed a grin that suggested he hadn't entirely lost touch with his con-man side.
"It's a little of both," he said.
In part two, coming Tuesday, Anonymous expands its war on censorship, taking on the government.
Click here to view an infographic charting the evolution of the 'Anonymous' group.