"Think of the Pirate Party in Sweden, or Anonymous in the US," he says. "These conversations start in a realm of culture and humor, but they end up taking on deeper significance over time, whether we like it or not."
That's an evolutionary pathway McGill's Biella Coleman, an expert on hacker culture and Anonymous, will try to trace when she joins Latoya Peterson of Racialicious on the "LOLitics: Memes and Politics" panel on Saturday.
"Though Anonymous has increasingly devoted its energies to (and become known for) digital dissent and direct action around various 'ops,' it has no definite trajectory," Coleman wrote in a January research essay for the nonprofit online magazine Triple Canopy. "Sometimes coy and playful, sometimes macabre and sinister, often all at once, Anonymous is still animated by a collective will toward mischief."
As powerful a force as Anon has become, though, the government still packs more muscle. Even as ROFLCon assembles, members of the United States Senate will be considering the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which would empower federal authorities to access private customer information from companies without judicial approval. Last week, in a letter to Congress, distinguished members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) condemned CISPA for compromising civil liberties. Soon after, even Microsoft — which, along with other behemoths like IBM and Facebook, first came out in support of the bill — broke from the blue-chip pack and openly rejected CISPA.
As a sign of how important CISPA and comparable threats like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) are to ROFLCon-goers, this year's encore panel is titled "Defending the Internet." The ROFLCon program describes its intent: "Join seasoned Awesome People in discussing how we can better coordinate to clobber enemies of the Internet into the future."
According to presenter David Weinberger, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center: "It's fascinating to me the way people who are so different nevertheless share a set of values — open information flow, creativity, bottom-up collaboration, [and] a sense that we are all together now taking back our culture from those who ran the broadcast media for a couple of generations."
Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain, who co-founded the Berkman Center and is an EFF board member, agrees.
"When you harness a powerful form of energy," he says, "it's tempting to see where else it can apply, and for what good."