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Anonymous activists gaining strength online

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"It's one thing to defy communist elites in China. It's something else to defy legally enacted information controls in a democratic country," says Steven Aftergood, head of the Project on Government Secrecy based in the District of Columbia. "If you value privacy or copyright or proprietary business information, then you understand that there is a place for nondisclosure."

The Internet, from its creation, has inspired strong resistance to information controls of any sort. The rallying cry "information is free" is shared by both Wikileaks and Anonymous. Right now, they are prevailing.

Last Thursday, a Florida judge denied a request by the Church of Scientology for a restraining order that would have prohibited some individuals from protesting within 500 feet of Scientology buildings. The judge noted that the identity of those making threats could not be determined. Legal threats to enforce copyright have also failed to stop the posting of a video of Tom Cruise speaking at a Scientology event.

But the real game-changing decision came last month, when a California judge backed down from an attempt to shut down Wikileaks. A Swiss bank had sought an injunction against Wikileaks after it published leaked private bank records purporting to show complicity in tax evasion. The judge's shutdown attempt backfired, as Wikileaks gained notoriety and quickly rerouted readers to mirror sites. "The judge in effect said that the law is helpless to deal with this phenomenon," says Mr. Aftergood.

Yet the courts haven't been entirely neutered by Internet anonymity, Aftergood and others say. For one thing, sources of information can be revealed with the help of Internet service providers.

For a time, however, technology has outpaced the law to some degree, and that's OK, says David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass. "I wouldn't say that today, just because technology developments have made it practically impossible for legal systems and nation-states to have power over [determined] actors, that that's going to be the case tomorrow," he says.

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