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Ryan Hagemann is a masters student in public policy at George Mason University and the co-author of a recent Mercatus paper, “Removing Roadblocks to Autonomous Vehicles.” His research interests include decentralized peer-to-peer networks, Transhumanism, stateless social organization, robotics and automation, and studies at the intersection of sociology, economics, and technology.
In 1648, the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, spawning the modern international system of state relations. What resulted was an order that relied on the premise that state actors would serve as the fundamental units of analysis in diplomatic affairs and global politics – that co-existing sovereign states would serve as a continual check on the balance of power between states. This system, a long stable institution of world order, has recently begun to experience an existential crisis.
The Internet and disruptive communications technologies have begun changing our world; they are leveling power disparities between individuals and institutions to such a degree that non-state actors are now gaining significant influence on the world stage.
Even as we speak, an evolution of international conflict is gaining steam, and while its origins are in the Levant, the true battle space is online. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) recently came into conflict with the anarchist hacktivism consortium Anonymous. The battlefield? Cyberspace.
Far from being a mere response to the carcinogenic spread of ISIS’ influence and power projection in the Levant, Anonymous’ cyber crusade against the would-be caliphate is among the first to occur amidst the Internet landscape. Their war is one of bits, and their battles are taking place outside the confines of traditional conflict zones; to the far corners of the digital world through the conduits of Twitter, Facebook, and the broader networks that make up the Internet. What we are witnessing is an entirely new breed of institution battling the old hierarchical, centralized power structure in a new way.
In his book Cypherpunks, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, makes a brief but impactful reference to what he refers to as Post-Government Organizations (PGOs): organizations that are composed of individuals pursuing common objectives by using decentralized digital networks to achieve their ends. They are loose collections of individuals who interact with one another primarily through the Internet and impact change through hacktivism or other digital activist means, including, but not limited to direct denial of service (DDoS) attacks on targeted websites, information revelation campaigns, and dissemination of contrarian messaging. WikiLeaks, Assange maintained, was the first of these PGOs, providing an anonymous platform for individuals with access to sensitive information the means to distribute it, without putting themselves at risk of exposure.
Specifically, Assange defines a PGO as “an organization that occupies cyberspace and is adept at moving its information around the underlying embeddings” of a digital network topography. He goes on to criticize the immense asymmetries in information between state actors and the underlying protocols of the Internet, arguing that these new institutions are bound to disrupt the old Westphalian power structures:
The governments are not sure … of the barrier between what is government or not. It’s fuzzed out now. Governments occupy space, but WikiLeaks occupies part of the space of the Internet. Internet space is embedded in real space, but the degree of complexity between the embedded object and the embedding means that it’s not easy for the embedding to tell that the embedded object is even part of it.
Anonymous, a decentralized ideological movement composed of many thousands of individuals purporting various political beliefs, philosophical outlooks, and degrees of technical skill, can just as easily be classified as a PGO. The only agreements that hold this tribe of Internet warriors together is that ideas, not directives, should drive their actions and that censorship is an unequivocal evil to be expelled from the online community. Beyond this, nothing substantive can be said of a group composed of many thousands (perhaps more) of various and disparate beliefs and motivations for joining the movement.
As Quinn Norton of Wired magazine has written, members of this legion are a “sea of voices, all experimenting with new ways of being in the world.” They are experimenting with old systems of international, and state-based, order. How their ongoing battle in the Middle East plays out will be a telling case study in the efficacy of these new institutions.
The First Digital War in Cyberspace
If the excesses of the Islamic State were not so alarmingly ruthless and inhuman, the entire affair could easily be mistaken for a classic comic book showdown: the legion of eschatological extremists hell bent on terrorizing the innocents battling the decentralized, ad-hoc affiliation of wily superheroes, each committing to the cause for incongruent reasons, bound together by nothing more than a vague sense of duty and honor to a broad ideological coalition.
But metaphors cannot do justice to the carnage unfolding in the Levant. Whatever one’s thoughts on Anonymous’ activities, few dispute that their campaign against ISIS is anything short of an ideological commitment to helping quell the tide of recruits flowing into Iraq and Syria (some estimates indicate as many as 100 volunteers per recruitment center join ISIS every day).
Anonymous first began mass targeting of extremist militants’ social media presence following the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, citing concerns over fanatical religious intolerance for free speech and the sanctity of human life. While a Twitter war is not quite the same as boots on the ground, the reality is that ISIS relies heavily on social media to spread its message and recruit volunteer fighters from around the world to join their barbaric crusade. The hacktivist attacks are an attempt to throttle the Islamic State’s recruitment efforts and curtail their online war of intimidation and the privation of human capital. The first digital war in cyberspace is unfolding before our eyes even as we speak.
In January of 2015, Anonymous released the following statement, expressing the motivations for their digital assault:
This is a press release by anonymous.
In the case of the terror attack against Charlie Hebdo, as we had previously told you, we plan on shedding light on all these events and give homage to those innocent killed.
The anonymous of all the planet have decided to declare war on you terrorists. We will track you down to the last one and will *kill (destroy) you. You allowed yourselves to kill innocent people. We will therefor [sic] avenge their deaths.
We will track all of your activities online. We will close your accounts on social networks. You will not impose your Sharia in our democracies. We will not let your stupidity kill our liberties, and our freedom of expression.
We have warned you. Expect your destruction. We will track you everywhere on the planet. Nowhere will you be safe.
We are anonymous.
We are legion.
We do not forget.
We do not forgive.
Be afraid of us, Islamic Sate [sic] and Al Quaida. You will get our vengeance.
Since January, Anonymous has continued with its battle plan., having taken down over 800 Twitter accounts, a dozen Facebook pages, and more than 40 email accounts, to say nothing of the various recruiting web sites and IP addresses associated with ISIS. Their most recent public threat against ISIS aptly sums up the endgame intentions of Anonymous: “You will be treated like a virus, and we are the cure. We own the Internet.”
Towards a New Westphalian Order?
While digital strikes are unlikely to destroy the tangible gains that the Islamic State has obtained, this emerging conflict could represent the beginning of the end of the old international state system. Previously, states were perceived as the international actors of merit; now, even though PGOs are unlikely to acquire a sufficient degree of coercive power to challenge standing armies anytime soon, it is clear that they are going to be playing some role in international affairs moving forward.
In the midst of this historical occurrence, it is worth pondering what the future of the international state system holds, given changes in technology, increased access to information, and calls to action that inspire groups from across cultures and continents, to respond, in real time, to emerging threats. What happens to the old Westphalian order when individuals and non-state actors suddenly become significant agents of action in international affairs?
It is far too early to tell whether, in the long term, PGOs will be a benefit or hindrance to the international order. What is clear, however, is that these organizations are slowly accumulating greater influence and are beginning to have more substantive impact in the world. For better or worse, these new associations are going to be with us so long as the Internet remains a transnational communications platform; limiting their power will be increasingly difficult as power continues to be more and more decentralized and distributed out of the hands of strong central authorities.
Sovereignty of states emerged as the legal norm after the Thirty Years’ War – what comes of the war being played out between ISIS and Anonymous remains to be seen.