Legions of the Underground will do little to alter the existing conditions and much to endanger the rights of hackers around the world. Declaring ‘war’ against the country is the most irresponsible thing a hacker group could do. This has nothing to do with hacktivism or hacker ethics and is nothing a hacker could be proud of.
- 2600, the Chaos Computer Club, L0pht, Heavy Industries, Phrack, Toxyn, Cult of the Dead Cow, Pulhas, and !Hispahack (1999)

We quickly discovered while studying hacktivism that a coherent and consistent definition is an enigma. Maybe this is a reflection of the decentralized and deeply individualized medium that plays host to it, or maybe it’s due to its sheer newness. In our research, we were able to identify two major motivations in work that self-identifies as hacktivism: the values of activism and street protest and the ethics dominant in hacker culture. In their book Hactivism and Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause?, Tim Jordan and Paul Taylor identify these two strains as mass action hacktivism and digitally correct hacktivism, respectively. We will explore this terminology further in later sections, but it is important to note that Jordan and Taylor base their distinction on the hacktivist’s relationship to an inherently disembodied cyberspace. In their view, digitally correct hacktivists embrace this feature of cyberspace, whereas mass action hacktivists counter it by attempting to populate this space with embodied agents. To be clear, the two aren’t meant to be hard and fast divisions, nor could they be. In fact, most hacktivist activity could be argued to demonstrate elements of both. However, these categories do provide a useful analytical framework for examining hacktivist actions.

Oxblood Ruffin, a member of a digitally correct hacktivist group Cult of the Dead Cow, argues: “Hacktivism is about using more eloquent arguments – whether of codes or words – to construct a more perfect system. One does not become a hacktivist merely by inserting an ‘h’ in front of the word activist or by looking backward to paradigms associated with industrial organization.” For hacktivists like Ruffin, the distinction between [h]activists and hacktivists is significant. The former are real-world activists who decide to make use of the internet as a new space for struggle, whether through the development of sophisticated communication networks or electronic civil disobedience tactics. The latter are hackers who can best be described in contemporary terms as direct-action net neutrality activists. Rather than taking to the streets or lobbying congress for better legislation, they take advantage of hacking skills to force the net to stay open despite the best attempts and worst intentions of many commercial and government interests. They are not necessarily concerned with the specifics of a particular revolution or mass social change. They are instead motivated by a desire to ensure that the internet remains a free [as in speech] space.

The “Decentralized Security Service”, Telecomix, falls primarily into the digitally correct hacktivism category, although as with most hacktivist collectives the boundaries between digitally correct and mass action hacktivism are blurred. Their websites are host to a wealth of information (and incredible propaganda films) about their efforts and the principles that guide them. Emboldened by Peter Fein’s admission at Pycon that he is an active member of both Anonymous and Telecomix, we went on to the Telecomix IRC chat to find out more. We immediately introduced ourselves as a student researcher, having decided it would be better to use “I” than “We”, and got permission to be there. We were immediately welcomed and invited to observe and ask questions. According to individuals who were willing to speak with us, Telecomix is a network of “hackers, datalovers, randoms, and some… spies [as in feds listening in]” that works to provide free and secure flows of information. It is an “ever changing cluster of people and projects” held together by “datalove.”

Some of the present Telecomix participants resist mainstream usage of the term. One member retorted, “its just another buzzword, its the same as in the 60′s etc, you use the tools that you have available to achieve your goals. it is just activism with updated tools…” A lively debate ensued, lending credence to their claim to a diverse and leaderless network. There seems to be ample room for a range of ideas.

In response to the idea that hacktivism is just about enacting ‘real world’ conflicts in cyberspace, one member said that “technology is not a means to an end. it is a lifeform in itself. so it has to be hacked.” When we asked about connections between Telecomix and other hacktivist groups, and specifically if there were any hacktivist activities that “are more consistent with datalove than others,” one of the users (who identified himself as a founder) answered: “yes. Telecomix doesnt do DDoS for example…we open flows of data, no matter what the content is.”

In general, to hacktivists (for lack of a better term) like these, the methods of electronic civil disobedience (ECD) are an affront. Jamming bandwidth and shutting down websites with
distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks sends a message, but comes at the expense of freedom of speech. Ricardo Dominguez, a member of the Electronic Disturbance Theater, is glib in his response to these criticisms: “This was the first time I had heard that bandwidth rights were more important than human rights.” Digitally correct hacktivists are quick to point out that it is a slippery slope to inhibit the right to free speech of even the most morally objectionable speakers. Jordan and Taylor join this chorus, questioning the supposition that digital rights are anything other than human rights.

It would be misleading to suggest that valid criticisms only flow one way. The Electrohippies, a group best known for its actions against the WTO, identified efforts that had mass impact, but could be generated by a lone individual as anti-democratic. In the wake of a devastating DDoS attack made possible by a botnet controlling hundreds of computers, rather than the participation of hundreds of citizens, the Electrohippies expressed their commitment to having embodied agents enact their protests. “What we’re all about is bringing community accountability to the internet…We have to treat cyberspace as if it were another part of society,” they wrote. “We must find mechanisms for lobbying and protest in cyberspace to complement those normally used in real life.”

The mobile communication infrastructure developed by tech activists at Indymedia for the 2004 Republican National Convention fit this bill. The group used databases and SMS technology to contact protesters throughout the week of the convention, alerting them to rally locations, up-to-the-minute updates and pertinent news. While this is a clear example of internet technology as a resource for real world activism, the same event fostered other hacktivist activities that expose the tension highlighted by the Telecomix members in the chat. Anti-RNC hacktivists also engaged in classic ECD tactics, defacing right-wing websites, organizing electronic sit-ins, and posting names, phone numbers, email passwords and other personal information of members of ProtestWarrior, a conservative group. Taking things even further, credit card numbers of RNC members were illegally acquired and then used to make charitable contributions to human rights organizations. Whether such actions should be understood as violent remains contentious within the hacktivist community (if such a community can be said to exist) and beyond.

Politics is not the exclusive domain of these kinds of hacktivist activities. Corporate entities have increasingly found themselves the target of hacktivist attacks. In December of 2010, Anonymous launched a DDoS attack to take down PayPal in the wake of their refusal to process Wikileaks donations. More recently, Anonymous initiated a similar attack on Sony. A manifesto enumerates their complaints.

The 1999 ‘toywar’ between internet toy giant Etoys and a net.art collective called etoy is a more nuanced example. Concerned that potential customers might accidentally arrive at the net.art site (which has a nearly identical URL) and be “disturbed” by the content, Etoys demanded that the net.art group desist and shut down their site. etoy had been operational for two years longer than Etoys. It was (and still is) one of the oldest and most respected net.art communities in the world. At the behest of a federal judge, the group that manages internet domains, Network Solutions, shut access to the net.art site, and then, going beyond the judge’s order, also shut down the site’s mail server, effectively cutting etoy members off from one another. The internet community rallied with remarkable agility in a campaign to lower the Etoys stock value from an all-time high of $57 a share to $0. They very nearly succeeded through the creative use of digital sit-ins and other tactics that undermined consumer confidence.

Etoys eventually dropped the suit and paid for all of etoy’s legal fees. The net.art site remains operational. The ‘toywar’ moniker aside, were the hacktivist actions, which caused $4.5 million in damages, a violent violation of the corporate giant’s rights? Or were they the only and, as a result, just recourse of the underdog in this David and Goliath scenario in a world where capital is king? For the hacktivists associated with etoy, the demands of Etoys were not only an assault on freedom on the internet, but an example of the assaults on democracy that we see in real-world spaces. In many other cases, the two are inextricably linked – they are part of the same system of control.

The internet may not be an analog for real world struggle, it is, as we heard, “a lifeform” in its own right, but it is another field of contention between forces of corporate and state control and forces for more direct democratic structures. Hacktivists all over the world are participating in a process of creating and then recreating what the form and function of these new kinds of structures (there are and will continue to be more than one) will be. At the same time, they are posing a direct challenge to the old ones. Hacktivism, whether “buzzword” or new paradigm for political action or both, is a field of activity that will continue to develop and diversify, one that by its very nature will avoid “maturing” or finding its niche, but will keep challenging boundaries and definitions of acceptability, possibility, and power.

One Response to “Hacktivism: A Datalove-fest”

  1. mdeseriis says:

    Dear Marisa and Dan, thank you for this very informative and detailed travelogue on hacktivism. You start by drawing an important distinction between activism and hacktivism, underlying how although hackers and activists share some common objectives they frequently disagree on how to pursue them. In particular, hackers are concerned that forceful interventions such as DDoS may end up disrupting the delicate balances that allow everyone to use the Internet as an open technology. This issue emerged for the first time in 1998 when the Electronic Disturbance Theater organized a netstrike in solidarity with the Zapatistas from the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. In that circumstance, a group of Danish hackers threatened Dominguez to take down the site from where the netstrikes were being coordinated and Dominguez replied by arguing that “bandwidth” should not precede human rights (as indigenous people were being killed in Chiapas).

    In this respect, it would have been useful to provide a bit of historic context for your travelogue. While the activism-hacktivism debate presents us with recurring issues, some of them–such as the one cited above–come from afar. The very term hacktivism emerged in the late 1990s when groups such as the EDT, the Electrohippies, and the Federation of Random Action began organizing virtual sit-ins and netstrikes in support of local actions and demonstrations, sometimes simultaneously with large-scale events such as the anti-WTO protests of the late-1990s-early 2000s. The DDoS organized in support of Wikileaks partly draw their inspiration from those experiences but they are also organized by a new generation of hackers and hacktivists that seem to have multiple agendas. Saying that these actions are only in support of net neutrality and freedom of speech is in my opinion a reductive view as some of them are not strictly oriented at protecting freedom of speech but at supporting for instance workers (as recently in Winsconsin). But this is an issue that could be discussed at length. To sum up, you wrote a very sophisticated travelogue. Its only limitation is the lack of an historic perspective, that is, events are listed in a random order without explaining how some came earlier and affected later developments. But this is not a big deal, as the travelogue was not necessarily meant to be a history of hacktivism.

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