Anonymous stepped afoul of Google Plus’s terms and conditions last week. The hacktivist collective’s page “Your Anon News” was officially suspended because “some of the posted content (eg. text, images) violated Community Standards.” As the group reports on its tumbler blog, its Gmail account was also closed–Google presumably deeming its anonymousness and hacking connections to be too troubling (we’ve asked Google to explain exactly why).
Explaining itself a bit more, an Anonymous spokesperson noted the silencing of a handful of Anonymous accounts was the “sad fact of what happens across the internet when you walk to a different beat of the drum” with corporate and government censorship of new and challenging organizations for activism on many media–including “Facebook, Twitter, YouTube.” Hence the need for “one social network that will not tolerate being shut down, censored, or oppressed–even in the face of blackout.”
The site as it stands is merely a shell, with some explanation about how it will work. And that’s where it gets interesting: Until this point you may have dismissed the notion as doomed to failure, or destined to become a hacker-collective hangout that may eventually get censored itself. But there’s actaully what looks like a concerted effort to build something technically novel because the site acknowledges “this product is not overnight, and will take many of those out there who simply want a better internet.” And there’s an explicit mention that “this project is for ALL people not just Anonymous” and the “anon” in its title is really meant to embrace “Anonymity of the social network.”
So what we’re looking at here may be a social network where you can exist as an entirely anonymous or pseudonymous entity–something you can’t do on Facebook or Google+, and different from intending to be Anonymous with a capital “A.” It’s perfectly possible to create a friending system and network, including interaction tools like chat and picture/file sharing without needing to have a real identity…it’s just that Facebook and Google won’t let you for fear of legal reprisals. There are big discussions from volunteers and coders on the forum behind the AnonPlus project, with a diffuse but active effort at planning how the site may work like this–right down to suggestions for UIs, and plans for smartphone apps.
Who’ll be a member? Political activists, and Anonymous members, most likely. And also other people searching for some anonymized interaction online–be it for fun, to experience a different kind of online interaction, or for political reasons. Maybe we can expect a high geekiness quotient in the membership (assuming it takes off) from coders and other technical types who are super-wary of Facebook and Google’s sheer bulk and potentially uncomfortable decisions in how they utilize user data and share it with the authorities. If the geeky angle takes off, it could become attractive to technical types merely by virtue of having a concentration of like-minded folk.
This is all contingent on two things: The project actually coming to fruition as a real product after all; and that its technical underpinnings ensure the network itself is resilient, able to resist official attempts to bring it down and also that its members genuinely have the option of staying anonymous.
The first problem is what seems to have beset open source Facebook competitor Diaspora, and AnonPlus has the added difficulty of being partly crowd-sourced (or so it seems, from the site’s forum). The second problem is a question of working out where to host the site–a problem ThePirateBay has repeatedly come across, and that WikiLeaks found to be an issue when the heat was turned up. These are thorny problems, but surmountable…especially since Anonymous has proven itself to be technically pretty savvy.
Assuming it all works out, AnonPlus could become an attractive venue. A kind of Switzerland of the Internet, with the site itself maintaining an independence that allows its members to do and say things that they may not be able to elsewhere. The danger is that a social net is really exclusively the product of its people, and if AnonPlus members cross illegal lines, it’s hard to see how it could survive.