Yesterday the famous Paypal 14 hacktivists were sentenced: all their felony charges were dropped, leaving them with misdemeanors and a bill for restitution. The Cryptosphere correspondent Douglas Lucas was the only journalist actually present at the sentencing. Since the conditions of their probation have now changed, this article marks the first media opportunity for a full half of the PayPal 14 to speak out without fear of ending up with a felony in return.
Exclusive: The #Anonymous Paypal 14 Speak Out Post-Sentencing
Finally, in San Jose federal court Wednesday, nearly four years after their groundbreaking digital sit-in against PayPal, 13 of the PayPal 14 of Anonymous saw their felony charges dropped. They were sentenced to probation and only a single misdemeanor, but most still carry a taxing burden: pay $5,600 each in ransom to the financial service (“restitution to the victim,” the Court would say) to finish getting their lives back after their nonviolent DDoS protest—else, at worst, ultimately face imprisonment. That’s down from the over $5 million in losses originally claimed by Paypal.
Their story started in December 2010, when PayPal blocked donations to WikiLeaks, caving to U.S. State Department pressure during the global uproar caused by the radical publisher’s release of a quarter million embassy cables. The blockade, which included other major financial services, at one point destroyed 95% of WikiLeaks’ revenue. PayPal still thwarts donations to the publisher today.
The 14 realized the financial service’s power to transfer money meant it could censor speech. You’ll recall Orwell’s All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. Along with thousands of others, the activists spoke up for everyone by immediately launching a DDoS (Distributed Denial-of-Service) protest against PayPal’s unjust blockade. The protesters, using Low Orbit Ion Cannon software, flooded a long list of PayPal IP addresses with a huge volume of otherwise ordinary requests. That took some targets offline for up to hours at a time, though PayPal.com itself was never down. Worldwide, activists engaged in or agreed with the action, but the authorities forced only a very few, such as Wednesday’s defendants, to serve as examples to warn us all.
LOIC, unlike botnet DDoS attacks, involves only the participants’ own computers, and does not call on an army of zombified, malware-infected computers to do the attack. In that way LOIC attacks distinguish themselves from typical spammer or black hat attacks in that they do not involve people who have not given consent.
The digital sit-in won huge, although brief, attention in the media, establishing hacktivism as a force and sending the loud, make-no-mistakes message that censorship by the powerful would be met by retaliation from the Anonymous gestalt. Not obvious in the media coverage was that, as PayPal stated during the four-day protest, payments were not significantly affected. Though the company initially sought $5.6 million in damages, PayPal kept up its contradictory don’t-worry-about-it line to shareholders, telling the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that no damage was done.
The lack of magnitudinous harm didn’t stop the FBI from raiding, in January 2011, the homes of the 14 and others nationwide, more or less simultaneously, executing search warrants. Don Husband (aka SomaCake and Ananon) told The Cryptosphere his story of that pre-dawn morning. “When they raided me, it was a nightmare. Every time you go to sleep for a few weeks afterward, you’re afraid you’re going to hear that ‘Bang bang bang! FBI, open up!’ I opened the door, and they put lights in my face. ‘We’re looking for Donald Husband. Are you Donald Husband?’ They grabbed me and took me outside, lined my roommate and me up against the garage door, armed agents behind us. You could hear agents on the walkie-talkie going through each room. ‘Clear! Clear!’ There were three locked doors that, as I told them, blocked only empty rooms—but they still smashed those down. My landlord didn’t like that. I lost my residency.”
The FBI came again, in July 2011, to continue the nightmare with same-day arrests. Keith Downey (aka PissStorm) told The Cryptosphere, “I was reading that morning on FOXNews.com about the FBI going around raiding Anons again, but the article didn’t say which ones. Right then the FBI knocked on my door.”
Soon after, and then for about two years, the activists had to worry about the government’s threat of 15 years in prison and half a million dollars in fines for each person—and they had to worry largely by themselves, losing jobs and friends. “The whole experience was very isolating,” Josh Covelli (aka Absolem) told The Cryptosphere. “The weight of what the government threatened us with was like an invisible prison. Somebody I’d never met wrote a piece of paper—telling somebody else I’d never met to come get me, signed by a judge I’d never met—and destroyed my life. Some people who claimed to be Anonymous doxed us, saying we were famefags riding off Project Chanology and trying to make a name for ourselves. When I told Occupiers who I was, they would shut me out of their channels. The day we got arrested, Commander X did an interview on CBS, wearing a camo bandanna, talking about owning everyone’s bases, destroying the Anonymous idea that people should actually be anonymous. I thought if Commander X was going to get support, we should get support too. But for the most part, there was silence. If you talked about LulzSec or Aaron Barr, there was coverage everywhere. If you talked about the PayPal 14: crickets.”
Indeed—despite the thousands who participated and many more who expressed agreement—it appeared that only about five or so concerned activists attended the sentencing, and I was the single journalist there. Legal ordeals continue for the often-overlooked Dennis Collins (aka Owen), not due at the hearing. Collins still faces, in the related and even more ignored Payback 13 case, up to a year in prison, and in the PayPal 14, the felony charge—he is now facing that one alone.
The Sentencing Hearing
Senior District Judge D. Lowell Jensen handed down sentences that did meet the defendants’ best hopes. The threat had loomed over their heads for years that the prosecution might argue any or all of them had violated their plea deals by breaking the law or speaking out in a way that could have harmed PayPal. But the prosecutors, standing by the lectern quietly, offered no evidence of violations—so the Court readily approved their dropping of the felony Computer Fraud and Abuse Act charge of conspiring to intentionally damage a protected computer.
The Department of Justice even came up empty-handed when Judge Jensen asked, for purposes of calculating Josh Covelli’s ransom/restitution payment, about that activist’s digital protest against the Santa Cruz county government. A few days after the PayPal sit-in, he DDoSed the county in objection to anti-homeless public sleeping laws. The prosecutors failed—possibly forgot—to have a damage report ready, so the Court determined they had not met their burden and considered Covelli’s Santa Cruz action irrelevant.
Judge Jensen also decided the defendants would get their computer equipment back, another happy result for them, many of whom are as technocentric as one would expect. Early on, the FBI had taken their devices to inspect them—presumably fishing for more evidence against Anonymous—for 90 days. But then the bureau extended the period to 120 days. The FBI still had the protesters’ gear even after that, so defense counsel complained to the judge. The Court shook its judicial head at the bureau, took possession of the equipment, and held it—until now.
The sentences of Ethan Miles and Drew Alan Phillips (aka Drew010), who took identical plea deals distinct from the one 11 took together, were similarly the best those two could reasonably hope for. Although their plea agreements included the extremely unlikely possibility of in-home confinement, the real question was if the pair would serve time in halfway houses or in jail. Both got the easier halfway houses—Miles for three months, Phillips four.
Miles told The Cryptosphere his sentence is not as simple as just his upcoming three months. He said, like many of Wednesday’s defendants, that the 1200-plus pre-trial days were a sentence in themselves. “The federal government muzzled us, keeping the case open-ended for that long. I was quite afraid to speak out with any of my opinions, because I was afraid of the power of the federal government if I were to become a problem for them. So I was erring on the side of caution. I’m an individual with limited resources, and they’re the federal government. I felt extremely intimidated.”
But fear didn’t stop Miles from becoming the only defendant who spoke a political statement to the Court:
I would like to begin my brief statement with a quote from a former U.S. president when he addressed the American Newspaper Association. “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we as a people inherently and historically are opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the danger of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.” [John F. Kennedy, April 27, 1961]
It is because of my desire for transparency that I participated in the Internet activity that brings me here today. I believe that for a healthy democracy to exist, the public must be informed.
However, I acknowledge that my actions amount to a transgression of the law. This I do not deny. To be clear, I accept responsibility for my conduct.
Though misguided, I truly acted out of a hope to live in a world less fraught with violence and war.
In the future if my sentiment compels me to act, I will find other acceptable avenues to address my grievances.
Thank you your Honor and members of the Court.
Asked about the apologetic tone of the final paragraphs, Miles told The Cryptosphere, “I broke the law, but if you look at history, there’s a place for civil disobedience. I believe my conduct was not felony conduct, which is why I took the separate plea deal. I was game to do a little time in jail and pay a fine, but that long threat of 15 years and half a million dollars was way too extreme. My civil disobedience was for the greater good, for transparency; the government was not being truthful, the leaks showed, and so I felt compelled to maintain moral integrity by taking action.”
Unfortunately, no pictures of Drew Alan Phillips or Jeffrey Puglisi (aka Jeffer) are available.
Spooky Appetizers, Festive Meal
Now free, save for the ransom/restitution burden, a probationary period to pay it and obey all laws, and the misdemeanor of committing intentional damage to a protected computer, most of the PayPal 14 gathered outside the courthouse to leave for lunch. While they waited, a bus with a Scientology advertisement on its side stopped nearby, an odd reminder of the 2008 Anonymous protest, launched against the abusive Church’s efforts to censor a leaked video, that first sprung the online gestalt into taking major offline action.
The strangeness continued online. That very day, the financial service was conducting a Twitter campaign hashtagged #PayPal15—when for months, activists had been using the hashtag #PayPal14 to raise donations. The creepy campaign, which included only a very few tweeted-out slogans, was overwhelmed by backlash on Twitter:
None of the spookiness could stop the festive mood. Perhaps the most charming person at Original Joe’s Italian Restaurant was the daughter of Tracy Valenzuela of the 14. The admiring teenager—just barely a teen—collected as many of the defendants’ signatures as she could on her Anonymous mask.
Mercedes Haefer signed first, with her handle N0:
Christopher Cooper (aka Anthrophobic) signed too:
As did Josh Covelli/Absolem:
Valenzuela’s daughter, who fittingly chose to remain anonymous, scored 10 signatures in all and smiled at least as wide as all of them put together.
As the lunch neared its end, Haefer collected defendants’ contact information for donations activists had raised. I asked about the controversial Anonymous campaign to raise money by protesting Glenn Greenwald‘s book tour in May, having co-authored the widely viewed press release. Its basic argument was that, in contradistinction to the PayPal 14’s anti-corporate, pro-transparency action, the famous Snowden journalist wrongly monetized weak reportage and partnered with billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who sits on the board of, and ultimately oversees, the financial service.
Nobody that I heard complained about the campaign. “Greenwald,” Covelli answered, “could come up and kiss my feet today, and I’d kick him in the face.” Haefer, a one-woman Low Orbit Ion Cannon of loud one-liners, said, “Greenwald can suck a sack of dicks.”
Multiple Fundraising Efforts
The controversial attack on Greenwald, which raised more than $7,000 its first two weeks, wasn’t the only fundraising work. The Wau Holland Foundation’s campaign, also launched in May, brought in nearly $4,000 by sentencing time, including about $124 in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The Foundation focused on the defendants’ “moral courage” and posted about the case Thursday.
Then there was, twice, ObeyParty—Obey as in Omidyar’s eBay, PayPal’s parent company. According to the press releases, the recurring Anonymous celebration aimed to raise money, have fun—“since the objective of this legal persecution is to divide and discourage us, we must use the opportunity to come together and laugh at eBay and PayPal”— and to “make PayPal and eBay sorry they started this.”
The parties, covered by The Cryptosphere, took place both online, in a Tinychat room, and offline in more than one city. The first celebration was July’s #ObeyParty2014. the second October’s Halloween-themed #ObeyParty666. The events have raised hundreds of dollars and captured imaginations, leading to craft-making and cooking and the usual Anonymous antics, such as eating, on live webcam to inspire donations, a frozen banana turned black. The #ObeyParty666 online portion contained about 40 chatters at its peak, about 20 the rest of time—and the celebration made the front page of Tinychat.
Ultimately, the three efforts and the $4,326 raised prior to them combined for, just two hours before the hearing, 25% of the $86,000 GoFundMe.com/PayPal14 goal. Which, of course, leaves 75% to go.
But the hacktivism/transparency movement gained from the fundraising in other ways, too: the Greenwald protest kicked up an unusual amount of questioning and rage, and the ObeyParties an unusual amount of fun—relative to the stiff quiet that has enveloped the U.S.-centric Anonymous sector since grueling pre-trial detention and prison time for years-ago actions (or alleged actions) became the norm.
The Best Party
But no partiers were happier than the group of defendants themselves who on Wednesday absquatulated to rooms at a nearby hotel as soon as they could. There they proceeded to get, one might as well say, epic wasted.
Going clockwise from the lamp as noon: long-time PayPal 14 supporter Melissa, Vincent Kershaw (aka Trivette), Ethan Miles, activist and long-time supporter worth of the world, Don Husband, Christopher Cooper (aka Anthrophobic), Keith Downey (aka PissStorm).
If you were a random observer from Finland—a few of those showed up, lured from the hotel’s swimming pool area by the loquacious Haefer—you would have seen oddly well-spoken United States folks in their late twenties and early thirties mostly doing what such people usually do when they party. Drink. Laugh. Joke. Drink. Yell banters back and forth. Drink. Get threatened by hotel management. Drink. Drink. Pass out.
But some recurring elements of the intoxicated conversation might have struck you as familiar if you’d ever visited the no-borders, crazed 4chan web community or even had heard just a bit about Anonymous. There were mentions of Dusty the Cat. Long Cat. Nyan Cat. Okay, cats. But more technical things as well: IRC (Internet Relay Chat), VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). If you weren’t familiar with such memes and data streams, however, you probably would have been bewildered. Like the Finns.
Perhaps the most amusing portion of the party was the phone call from a random high school student who was writing an English paper. “Where’s this kid from?” someone asks. “I don’t know,” Haefer replies. “He’s working on an assignment about Anonymous.”
She tells the teen, “So, you have a significant number of the PayPal 14 here. I’m going to put you on speaker.”
The student begins fumbling for words. “I’m working on a research project for my high school class. I don’t know how to put this. It’s corny as fuck.” Haefer reassures him that she receives many calls from high school students. He continues: “I’ve also read a lot about, you know, how Anonymous may be on the Internet.” May be? “So, like. How did it go from a group of people on the Internet to, like, a big thing? Not a fad, but. I don’t know how to talk about it—this is hard!”
Haefer kindly lectures him on the standard history. “So you remember The Pirate Bay got taken down by that massive DDoS? That’s really where the IRC side of stuff started to come from. ‘You can’t fuck with our Internet.’ Significant organizing off of 4chan was because they were organizing to get back at them for getting at the Pirate Bay. That’s how it went from 4chan to non-4chan.”
The conversation somehow morphs, the way memes do. The student is now walking through some fenced field as he talks—it’s hard to tell from listening, because everyone else in the room is too happy talking to each other, the high schooler left to the media-savvy Haefer. “Are there cows there?” she asks. “I’m, like, outside,” he explains, unhelpfully; perhaps he is avoiding his parents. Suddenly he shouts at something. “Hey! Hey!” Haefer prompts: “Do you get into trouble?” He says, “I got an English teacher—not mine, another one—fired, but it’s a long story.” “No, tell us the story.” “It’s a long story.” “No, we have time.”
The details—something about the teacher screaming at the hardworking students and calling them “poison” before, like, totally flipping out—are lost in the noise. Alcohol intake increases. The defendants finally begin to believe their sentencing is actually over.
Intoxication be as it may, the night was more than some rowdy pack finally clearing out of much of their trouble. The group’s conversation turned time and again to meaning and the hacktivism/transparency movement. I spent a good bit alone with Don Husband and then with Christopher Cooper (aka Anthrophobic) to get their thoughts on it all, including the way Anonymous supported Occupy Wall Street until the encampments were crushed, all that work seemingly extinguished, even as important efforts such as Strike Debt remain. The ideals Cooper and Husband expressed in the conversations struck me as shared by at least the half of the PayPal 14 who partied at the hotel.
Husband told The Cryptosphere, “It’s been a bittersweet journey. The case, for almost four years, has behind lurking behind my life, threatening to take me away for more than a decade and destroy my record forever with a felony. But then again, all the support of the people, and everything turning out in favor of us, gave me a newfound hope for humanity. This case was scary. Some here tonight act really brave, but trust me, there were times when it got scary. The government in your life with an iron grip, playing whatever games they want to play, doing whatever they want to do. That night of the raid, I never admitted to the FBI that I did it. But I said, in some words, that if someone wanted to do it, it was a good thing. I still think that. And the lava [of the movement] is still flowing right beneath the surface. I think the oligarchs are just going to fuck the economy forever. There are going to be these financial bubbles continuing to pop up, and each time they burst, we’re going to lose more property, more of our belongings. Each time that happens, the lava will erupt.”
Cooper came to the same conclusion. “I feel like the enthusiasm is still there,” he said. I wondered aloud if activist action in future economic crashes would escalate the rebellion. He was certain it would. “Next time will be a lot stronger.”
He told me the story of his ordeal. “It was already difficult for me to find a job because of my state probation from a different life, and all this just made it more difficult. After I was charged, I found a job cooking at IHOP, and it wasn’t more than four days later that I was being told I had to come back out here for a hearing, so I lost that job too. I got into all this—I’d been spending time at home and came across the WikiLeaks Collateral Murder video [showing an incident in which unprovoked U.S. military helicopter fire killed more than a dozen people in Iraq, including Reuters journalists and a van driver who attempt to conduct a rescue], and I didn’t like what I saw. Eventually I found the Anonops IRC (Internet Relay Chat) where everything was happening . . . and then I ended up here.”
I asked him if he felt proud of the DDoS against PayPal. He nodded strongly. “Yes. I’m not going to say I would do it again, but I still believe the cause was for a good purpose, and I stand behind it. It was a long, difficult ride . . .” And then he paused. If only for a night, Fortune had brought them together again, after the years of lonely hardship—brought together some of the very few picked out of thousands to serve as examples. He added something simple that captured the experience of a true fight with fellow travelers at one’s side.
“But it was fun. It really was.”
Featured Image via Twitter: