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Who are Anonymous? And what do they want?

As the war of WikiLeaks gains a second front in cyberspace, governments, media outlets and businesses around the world are struggling to understand just who or what their adversary, Anonymous, is - and what it hopes to achieve.

And obligingly, today, the self-styled "Internet gathering" of individuals bent on defending their vision of free speech online, issued a press release in an attempt to clarify the issue - though it raises as many questions as it answers.

In the statement, Anonymous denied any kind of formal structure, explaining that its name is applied to a shifting roster of individuals who come together on an ad hoc basis, depending on individual concerns and practical, day-to-day matter such as who happens to be online at the time.

This, the press release says, explains reports of a rift that has emerged from among Anonymous's ranks in the last two days.

"Both Anonymous and the media that is covering it are aware of the percieved [sic] dissent between individuals in the gathering.

"This does not, however, mean that the command structure of Anonymous is failing for a simple reason: Anonymous has a very loose and decentralized command structure that operates on ideas rather than directives."

The 'gathering' had explained its loosely-defined nature in an earlier manifesto, released on Thursday.

Anonymous doesn't like to be called a 'group'. And much less do its members like to be called 'hackers'. They are, to use the manifesto's excitable, sci-fi-tinged terminology, an "Online Living Consciousness"

"Througout the relatively short history of Anonymous," says the manifesto, "the atoms it is comprised of have never been the exact same in number, consistency and form."

That history has been short but eventful. Its ever-changing coalition of individuals first came together several years ago, meeting on Internet forums including notorious image messageboard 4chan, and corresponding via Internet Relay Chat.

From the outset, members have taken part in a number of high-profile Internet actions. Beginning with seemingly motiveless vandalism on social networking site Habbo, Anonymous's actions swiftly became more politicised, with a vigilante-style investigation to track down Canadian paedophile Chris Forcand, a site take-down against white supremacist talkshow host Hal Turner, and the so-called 'Project Chanology' campaign against the Church of Scientology.

Earlier this year, members of the coalition claimed responsibility for high-profile action against anti-piracy organisations, launching Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on targets including controversial UK-based legal outfit ACS Law and record label Ministry of Sound in the early stages of a campaign it dubbed 'Operation: Payback'

And this month, the 'Hivemind' extended Operation: Payback to the defence of WikiLeaks, orchestrating attacks on PayPal, Mastercard and Visa after they withdrew payment facilities from the whistle-blower.

In a move perhaps calculated to minimise negative publicity over fears that their activities jeopardised credit card users, the collective claims not to be attempting to disrupt the day-to-day operations of the companies, opting instead for what they term the Internet equivalent of a sit-in protest - a show of strength calculated to demonstrate collective will.

Internet users have been urged to download software enabling them to become part of the so-called 'voluntary botnet' used to wield the group's weapon of choice, the 'Low-Orbit Ion Cannon' (LOIC) in order to overwhelm chosen targets with a deluge of data packets.

PayPal's corporate blog was unavailable for several hours last weekend. Anonymous claimed that a low-level attack on the company's main servers had also slowed traffic perceptibly enough to make its point, making it more expensive for the company to operate.

"We do not want to steal your personal information or credit card numbers," Anonymous claimed in today's press statement. "We also do not seek to attack critical infrastructure of companies such as Mastercard, Visa, PayPal or Amazon.

"Our current goal is to raise awareness about WikiLeaks and the underhanded methods employed by the above companies to impair WikiLeaks' ability to function."

Also in the firing line was Swedish government, after prosecutors in the country demanded the extradition from Britain on sexual offences charges of WikiLeaks founder Assange.

The Swiss post office bank that froze Assange's personal assets within hours found itself on the receiving end of a site take-down by members of Anonymous.

So what are Anonymous's aims? In short, the group has none, beyond a generic desire to protect free speech on the Internet.

Self-appointed mouthpiece 'Coldblood', appearing in an interview on the UK's BBC Radio 4, claimed his own stance was apolitical - and the very emergence of a single personality representing the loose grouping caused a bout of in-fighting, with a number of affiliated users including @Op_Payback, @C0d3Fr0sty, @Anon_Operationn and @AnonOpsNet revealing some in-fighting among the organisation's ranks.

Coldblood was subsequently outed as a junior and substantially inactive member of the faction. An open video letter posted on YouTube narrated in a robotic, computer-generated voice reiterated the message that the organisation had no head, no spokesperson - and it wanted none.

Reports have emerged today that Anonymous's LOIC botnet weapon has now been downloaded over 40,000 times.

With the grouping's denial of service attacks capable of being launched by as few as ten individuals from the amorphous grouping's floating membership, that gives this rag-tag army the power to strike whenever and wherever it wants to, with little organisation - and little chance of being traced.

It now seems clear that Anonymous is no-one - and everyone. It doesn't matter who Anonymous are, but what - their campaign is not a 'cyber-war', but the greatest propaganda coup the Internet has ever seen, with the power to put the brakes on some of the most powerful organisations on earth.

Anonymous is the Internet's new reality. Welcome to the Hivemind. monitors all leading technology stories and rounds them up to help you save time hunting them down.