Anonymous vs. PETA: How a case of kitten killing turned into a fight over free speech


Factions within the Anonymous hacker collective have targeted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to defend against what they claim is an attempt by the organization to silence anonymous online criticism with legal threats.

Pursuant to a defamation lawsuit, PETA filed a petition to the State Supreme Court of New York on May 23 demanding the Huffington Post provide “identifying information” of three user accounts that had commented on the media organization's website. The comments that PETA says are defamatory appeared on an article that reported the death of hundreds of cats and dogs at the hands of the animal rights organization — yes, you read that right.

The identifying information PETA is seeking includes IP addresses and their corresponding physical addresses. Anonymous has now joined the fray in defense of those commenters' right to remain unknown, countering PETA's legal challenge with "OpPETA."

One Anon involved with OpPETA told GlobalPost that all options against the rights group are being considered, including hacking their website, launching a denial of service (DDoS) attack, and revealing the private information of PETA officials associated with the case.

Anonymous says they’re waging OpPETA in defense of individuals who lack the resources to fight an expensive legal battle.

“This kind of legal maneuver is typical of corporations and organizations who cannot accept opposing viewpoints and think freedom of speech and online anonymity are merely inconveniences to be dealt with by high powered and expensive lawyers and huge piles of cash,” one Anon involved in OpPETA said in a statement.

“This Op is not against animal rights, it is against the cynical manipulation of well meaning people to fund lawsuits and advertising that do nothing but advance the agenda of PETA,” the statement read.

“It is time PETA was reminded that Anonymous does not forgive or forget those who oppose free speech and will not stand for legal threats against those voicing legitimate criticisms.”

More from GlobalPost: After DOJ probe, online anonymizers become journalism's new standard

A PETA representative told GlobalPost the organization believes individuals who post false information should not be allowed to hide behind an online identity. 

“PETA is a stalwart defender of the First Amendment freedom of speech, but defamation is not protected, and Internet users cannot hide behind a veil of anonymity to defame others,” the representative wrote.

“PETA has no ax to grind with Anonymous — in fact, we wholly support freedom of information and information sharing. What we do not support is false information and seeing people being deliberately duped, sometimes by industry operatives disguised as concerned citizens.”

One of the users targeted by PETA's legal action, commenting under the name Lucy Van Pelt, told GlobalPost they had no intention to defame PETA or mislead readers. 

“I do not believe that I have done anything outside of engaging in my rights to free speech and assembly to provoke PeTA [to take legal action]. I want to make that very clear,” the individual said. The individual provided account screenshots, identifying information and legal documentation sufficient to confirm his or her identity as the user named Lucy Van Pelt.

“What I did do was vigorously respond to the numerous attempts that were made by PETA defenders to derail the conversation — the ones who keep creating new accounts and posting the same lies, accusing all of the anti-PETA commentators of being hired by Rick Berman and [the Center for Consumer Freedom],” the user added.

The Center for Consumer Freedom is an organization that lobbies on behalf of the fast food, meat, alcohol and tobacco industries.

In addition to being targeted by PETA legally, Lucy Van Pelt claims to have suffered harassment, including alleged threats of physical violence by PETA supporters.

“They have threatened me every possible way imaginable. They have followed me around wherever I go online — and called me by my real name. Yes, they know exactly who I am and where I live,” she said.

“I welcome the help of Anonymous and I need it, too,” said Lucy Van Pelt. "I don't condone any action by any Anonymous member that would be considered illegal. But I love all the Twitter comments they are sending out that are distinctly anti-PETA.”

More from GlobalPost: Myanmar: Anonymous rallies around Rohingya, prepares for online operation

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