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16 Oct, 2012 18:12

Anonymous and WikiLeaks: Is it really a breakup?

Anonymous and WikiLeaks: Is it really a breakup?

Whistleblowing website WikiLeaks has come under fire from members of hacktivist group Anonymous, who lashed out against a paywall banner on its main page. But since the group is not a single entity and has no leader, who has the power to speak up?

Anonymous has been a longtime advocate of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, vocally supporting the website’s mission of sharing secret data, news leaks, and classified information with the public.However, information recently posted by Anonymous on AnonPaste.me says WikiLeaks "has chosen to dishonor and insult Anonymous and all information activists" by requiring payment to view documents it previously made available for free.But Anonymous is not a structured group with a defined leader – and the identity of the people behind this post and various Twitter usernames remains unclear. The uncertainty has left many wondering whether these opinions represent the group as a whole, or just a few scattered members.

Previous partnership

The annoyance that Anonymous members seem to be experiencing is likely due to the fact that they take credit for some of WikiLeaks’ major data publications.Anonymous and other hacktivists say they were the parties which provided WikiLeaks with the more than 2 million emails released as part of the Syria files.  The publication was not the first time that Anonymous and WikiLeaks have worked together. Last December, Anonymous hacked five million emails from Texas-based private security firm Stratfor. The group later relayed those emails to WikiLeaks, which published them in February.

Provoked by a paywall

The statements came after WikiLeaks posted a red overlay banner on the site, asking visitors to donate money. The banner cannot be closed and unless a donation is made, certain information – including GIFiles and the Syria emails – are not displayed.

The donation advertisement can be circumvented by disabling Javascript, but Anonymous argues that average visitors will not know how to do that.WikiLeaks said the banner is a US election related campaign which will expire on Election Day. The ad, which is narrated by Assange and ends with him asking for donations, encourages visitors to “vote with their wallet” this election season. Small text at the bottom of the WikiLeaks page, however, says the banner only appears once a day for each user.The site admits the paywall’s presence is less than ideal, but says it is financially necessary.“WikiLeaks faces unprecedented costs due to involvement in over 12 concurrent legal matters around the world, including our litigation of the US military in the Bradley Manning case. Our FBI file as of the start of the year had grown to 42,135 pages,” a written response from the website said.But at least some Anonymous members see the paywall as nothing more than a fundraising tool for Julian Assange, leading members to speak out.A statement on pastebin.com said that Anonymous cannot support the “One Man Julian Assange show,” adding that while the group continues to support the original idea behind WikiLeaks, the website doesn’t seem to stand for that idea anymore.

The members seem to continue to oppose Assange’s extradition to the US, deeming him a “content provider and publisher, not a criminal.” However, the hacktivists said on pastebin.com that WikiLeaks should not be about Assange alone, and they feel the page has become an advocacy site for the whistleblower:“We have been worried about the direction WikiLeaks is going for a while. In the recent month the focus moved away from actual leaks and the fight for freedom of information further and further while it concentrated more and more on Julian Assange.” 

Anonymous accountability

The question remains who exactly is behind these statements, and whether the opinions represent Anonymous as a whole.Since the beginning, Anonymous has made clear that the group is not a single entity led by any individual, and has no central command. “Anonymous is a very complex and versatile entity and there will never be any leader that will speak for them all. We would not want it that way. Of course, there are some channels (like the big Twitter accounts) that have more reach than others and thus it can be argued that they have more influence. But that doesn't make us leaders," the pastebin.com statement said.