Because of the attacks on WikiLeaks and its founder there has been considerable media attention to the hacktivism practiced by supporters of WikiLeaks. That has been manifested as cyber attacks on mainstream commercial websites that acted against WikiLeaks. Hacktivism as retribution and strategy to gain political objectives is bound to become much more common. And considering how voting, especially from the perspective of younger people, has been enormously disappointing as a means of reforming government and political systems worldwide, that seems appropriate.
Naturally, there is a fine discussion of hacktivism at Wikipedia. There we learn that it has been around far longer than the current attention to the WikiLeaks situation.
Hacking has come to mostly mean illegal breaking into computer systems, while activism has always been either violent or nonviolent. Hacktivism is clearly now seen as an alternative to convention activism, civil disobedience and, increasingly, participation in democratic, electoral processes.
The combination of computer programming skills, critical thinking, anger and disgust with prevailing corporate and government institutions can, and probably should, drive better focused hacktivism. It could become an effective strategy for achieving major political reforms.
Cyberterrorism along with cyber crime, Internet fraud and everyday spamming are to be feared and fought, while hacktivism merits considerable respect and public support as a philosophic and political tactic responding to contemporary political and social issues and needs. At least, as long as it does not do harm to individuals.
Those with the expertise to implement hacktivism are a new breed of radicals, revolutionaries, and power brokers that is unsurprisingly an inevitable consequence of the whole computer, networking and Internet world that has been overly embraced. As with all technologies, there are always generally unseen and unintended negative impacts that catch people, governments, companies and just about everyone else by surprise. If there is any real surprise, it is that the world has not seen far more widespread hacktivism.
In a fine 2004 article, “Hacktivism and How It Got Here,” Michelle Delio pointed out: Hacktivism, as defined by the Cult of the Dead Cow, the group of hackers and artists who coined the phrase, was intended to refer to the development and use of technology to foster human rights and the open exchange of information.
We should see hacktivism as a dimension to cyber or digital democracy. It may first appear as more deadly than violent street protests against government actions that are seen frequently, particularly in Europe, but should it not be seen as just a more technological form of protest appropriate for our time? Indeed, just as WikiLeaks is seen as a more potent, technological form of whistle blowing, is not hacktivism its logical complement?
There is a wonderful, detailed history of hacktivism on the Wikipedia site, including a citation to a 2006 published paper by the now infamous Julian Assange titled “The Curious Origins of Political Hacktivism.”
Listen to the thinking of a 22-year-old London software engineer known only as Coldblood, who controls the servers the group Anonymous uses to implement its hacktivist actions. “I decided to speak as I’m passionate about how government shouldn’t censor the internet. We suggest sites to attack, and if enough people think it’s good, it will generally happen. It’s a community thing. By making it harder for these companies to operate online we show them a message that it’s not just governments they need to keep happy, it’s the users as well. If their website is offline, then people can’t use their services and it affects them. It’s like an idealistic democracy. But everyone is aware that the attacks are illegal. Nobody is pressured into taking part. A lot just watch. But if they arrest one person, the attacks won’t stop.”
To see hacktivism positively today may require having a positive attitude towards WikiLeaks as the defender and protector of the public’s right to know what governments, corporations and international organizations are really doing, even when secrecy is used to thwart transparency. In so many respects, WikiLeaks is more trustworthy than the groups it exposes. It is performing a duty that newspapers could once be counted on to do, but with corporate ownership and censorship of media, WikiLeaks offers more independence. However, the relationship between WikiLeaks and several mainstream newspapers in its release of US State Department documents has been seriously questioned by Michel Chossudovsky: “how can this battle against media disinformation be waged with the participation and collaboration of the corporate architects of media disinformation? Wikileaks has enlisted the architects of media disinformation to fight media disinformation: An incongruous and self-defeating procedure.” Still, working with corporate media may have been a tactic to protect WikiLeaks.
This much seems certain about the future: The more that electoral politics in western democracies appears increasingly ineffective in fighting political and corporate corruption, economic inequality, restraints on the Internet, environmental problems, suffering in developing countries, and unnecessary wars, the more we can expect to witness hacktivism. The most interesting question is whether the American and global plutocracy that has so successfully advanced the greedy interests of the rich and powerful will learn to live with hacktivism or whether it mounts a far more aggressive attack on it, including severe criminal penalties. Hacktivism is not so much the problem as a symptom of a far more serious, deeper set of problems.