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Hacktivism for Cyber Democracy

Could better focused hacktivism amplify, maybe even replace, conventional activism, civil disobedience, and elections? This 2010 article for Dec 31 is from a frequent contributor. Do you have some news to share? Please send it in.

by Joel S. Hirschhorn

Because of the attacks on WikiLeaks and its founder, supporters of WikiLeaks launched cyber attacks on mainstream commercial websites that acted against WikiLeaks. Hacktivism as retribution and strategy to gain political objectives could become much more common. Consider how voting, especially from the perspective of younger people, has been enormously disappointing as a means of reforming government and political systems worldwide.

The discussion of hacktivism at Wikipedia reveals 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 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 -- 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 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?

Wikipedia provides a detailed history of hacktivism, 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.

[Contact Joel S. Hirschhorn through]

JJS: The Internet is the vulnerable underbelly of the good old Establishment. It’s also the future of communication for Earthlings coming of age. The old ways of sharing information failed crucial ideas such as geonomics, or vice versa. But the Internet gives humanity another chance (maybe its last chance?) to think its way out of its self-imposed problems. We have feasible solutions available; we just need to use them so that the world works right for everybody. A parting thought for 2010.


Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.

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