Is Hacktivism a Genuine Form of Protest?

Graham Armstrong discusses the ethics of hacktivism; addressing the issues of whether it can be a form of censorship and whether this style of protest is effective and, most importantly, legitimate.

Image: Fathers 4 Justice CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: minifig

In the online age of uncertain digital rights, it’s crucial for individuals to take a stand and raise awareness of the issues that affect all of us online. There’s several ways within the online world to demonstrate and raise awareness of causes such as e-petitions or social networking groups, but one of the more controversial methods is hacktivism. The term hacktivism is a portmanteau of the words hacker and activist which tends to refer to the use of unauthorised computer access to further an agenda, usually political or social. Hacktivism itself can be a fairly dubious issue, for all the power it can grant hackers of varying shades of grey, it could potentially be an effective tool for promoting an important agenda.

Is hacktivism effective?

It's very difficult for activists in small numbers to bring awareness to the issues that they campaign against. It's tempting for activists to pull stunts in order to raise awareness of their cause; take the instance of Eddie Gorecki and Jonathan Stanesby, two members of Fathers 4 Justice, who scaled the Royal Courts of Justice dressed as Batman and Robin. Their protest managed to gain national recognition in the press, which rather successfully raised their profile. Days later two-thousand supporters marched in London with a tank!

So perhaps hacktivism is just that – the gimmick that raises the profile of a cause. Anonymous hacktivists have used the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), a tool for Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, to take down several websites of organisations supporting the Stop Online Piracy Act. The Department of Justice website was taken down as well as those owned by the FBI, MPAA, RIAA. Was it effective? Well SOPA failed, didn't it?

That said, I wouldn't attribute the success of the anti-SOPA campaign to Anonymous taking down websites. At most, I could imagine people trying to access those sites being irritated that “heir internet isn't working properly.” Many of the examples of hacktivism I've seen are preaching to the converted; this style of hacktivism does not seem to do much to engage with the public beyond creating momentary annoyances.

I believe that most of the attention to the anti-SOPA campaign came from the blackout of prominent websites such as Wikipedia, Reddit and Craigslist. This seemed a brilliant strategy to confront end-users with the effects of censorship, perhaps more-so than a '500 Internal Error' web page.

However, aside from black-outs, there is also the case of internet vigilantes such as 'The Jester' who put a lot of effort into disrupting the websites of alleged terrorist organisations. As of late, he's also helped to put behind bars several 'script-kiddies' who disrupted the UK anti-terrorist hotline as well as disrupt the activities of Anonymous group LulzSec. If there's such a thing as hacktivism in action – that's it!

Is hacktivism ethical?

On the face of it, a lot of DDoS attacks can seem to simply be retaliation – an eye for an eye. I've never been comfortable with that stance. To me, activism should be about rectification rather than revenge. So can hacktivism ethically meet this criteria?

It could be seen that hacktivism in the form of website take-downs and take-overs is a method of censorship. Denying access to information from groups with opposing viewpoints could be seen as dodgy behaviour, however I'm not ready to brand this as censorship. I feel that censorship is a very strong term describing the suppression of ideas; this sort of website blocking is more comparable to graffiti than book burning. These actions often take websites offline for a few hours, nothing serious enough to cause lasting damage but just enough to raise attention to a cause. Consider as well that this behaviour could be a form of disobedience in refusing to accept services as-is; that perhaps attacks like these are comparable to blockading buildings like the recent protest in Mexico against biased TV reporting or even the Occupy movement.

It’s easy enough to imagine however that the owners of these websites won’t see having their own content effectively blocked as a legitimate act of protest. It’d be all too easy for groups of organised hackers to pick on somebody whose livelihood depends on their web presence. It’s unlikely to be that bad; targets of hacktivist attacks tend to be large multi-national corporations like Visa, to whom a few angry nerds with a DDoS script pose little risk. But the key question as to whether these attacks are justified does not have a blanket answer; it will always depend on the specific case.

A tactic that certainly should be of concern to digital rights campaigners is document dropping or as it’s referred to: “dox drops”. This is the practise of hackers stealing personal, or otherwise private, information pertaining to individuals and publishing it to the web. Personal details of executives of the pro-copyright lobby were published to the world as part of Anonymous’ Operation Payback. Clearly that was a breach of individual privacy and served no purpose for pursuing an agenda, other than an incitement of retaliation.

I feel this comes down to an argument of “does the ends justify the means?” If we consider that using hacktivist methods could disrupt terrorist networks or promote a particular cause or ideology, are we willing to accept that it's ok? At the end of the day, hacktivists have to accept that it's as important for those they disagree with to share their opinion as it is for those they oppose.

So is hacktivism a genuine form of protest?

I’ve spent a while thinking about this but I believe that yes, hacktivism is a genuine form of protest. Clearly from the attention that has been given to causes utilising hacktivist methods it seems fair to say that hacktivism can be effective. I find it debateable though as to whether hacktivist methods can create sympathy for a cause, it’s difficult to ascertain the helpfulness of hacktivism for a particular cause. I do believe that it is entirely possible for hacktivist methods to be used in a justified and ethical way.

The serious nature of hacktivism necessitates that it be one of the final options of protest for when all other methods have failed. It’s a rather aggressive tactic that’s more likely to intimidate and aggravate rather than promote progressive discourse between two parties. Failing that, clever clogs hackers will no doubt find a way to promote their message.


Graham Armstrong is a computing student, with interests in free software and social media, as well as a real ale advocate. He tweets as @LupusSLE

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Comments (1)

  1. rageahol:
    Aug 01, 2012 at 07:15 PM

    To even ask whether something is a "genuine" (or legitimate) form of protest is to needlessly constrain the idea of protest, which I would argue undermines the effectiveness of protest as an avenue for social change.

    Whether it's effective or not is another question entirely.

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Graham Armstrong on Aug 01, 2012

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