An introduction to Hacktivism and Anarchism

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In the last few years, headlines have been filled with news of online attacks carried out against government and corporate websites claimed by groups calling themselves, among others, “Anonymous” and “Lulzsec”. Hacktivism is now so popular that a documentary will soon be released covering the Anonymous movement and others called “We Are Legion: The story of the Hacktivists”

Hactivism did not start with Anonymous, in some ways it could be seen as a follow-on to groups like the Yippies and the more recent “Yes Men”. Electronic civil disobedience goes back to 1994, to groups like the Zippies, the Electronic Disturbance Theater, Milw0rm, The Electrohippies, The 1984 Network Liberty Allance, and the Hackbloc collective. 

The hacker group “Cult of the Dead Cow” coined the term Hacktivism in 1996 and founded the Hacktivismo group in 1999, which has produced tools to subvert censorship and aid freedom of access to information for example to aid human rights activists in China. In contrast to Anonymous they do not regard website defacement or denial of service attacks (the most common actions taken by Anonymous) as hactivism.

The Hackbloc collective, with the tagline “Exploit Code, Not People” may be the closest hactivist group to anarchism, being composed primarily of self-proclaimed anarchists and “supports radical social movements with technical knowledge and tools” and claims to also “support and strengthen our local communities through education and action”. They publish the longest running hacktivist zine in the world–HackThisZine.

Anonymous originated on the message board “4chan”, one of their foremost original campaigns being conducted against the Church of Scientology.  In some ways, Anonymous are more of a tactic and mindset than a genuine cohesive group per se, as they have no centralised (nor even decentralised!) command and control structure. Nevertheless key individuals associated with Anonymous use various twitter accounts under “anon” signatures, which are used to convey messages and instructions on the various campaigns that anonymous have decided upon.

Those on the left are no doubt well aware of groups like Wikileaks who have gained enormous media attention and acclaim by human rights and media transparency groups by releasing classified documents to the public which have ruffled the feathers of politicians averse to having their dirty laundry aired in public.

Anonymous were quick to act against Paypal when they froze the account of Wikileaks – an Anonymous statement explained that the organisations share similar goals of greater transparency and less censorship.

Just prior to the beginning of the original Occupy Wall Street protest, Anonymous used an application they developed to spread messages all over twitter urging peaceful protest.

One of the more prominent defectors from Anonymous is Barret Brown, interviews with whom grant a valuable insight into the ‘hacktivist’ mindset. Although he did leave the group, he still seems to have much respect for them and clearly views much of what they do as politically and morally positive and justifiable. The recently deposed “ringleader” of another hacktivist group “Lulzsec”, Hector Xavier Monsegur,  also saw what he was engaged in as a morally noble crusade against evil corporations and states. Even more surprisingly perhaps was the news that two members of Lulzsec were alleged to be Irish teenagers!

Much of the viewpoints expressed by such individuals would be familiar to political activists on the left and indeed many like Barret Brown express explicitly anti-capitalist or anti-statist sentiments.

One of the more serious criticisms that should initially be levelled at the movement is that the open and non-organisational nature of the campaigns which Anonymous conduct mean that little or no control is exercised over those participating, such that  destructive or morally dubious actions are easily committed under the groups banner without any possibility for those who participate in more principled actions to distinguish themselves from online vandalism committed by digital hooligans for fun or by organised criminals for profit.

Digital activism and ‘anarchism’ have been associated since the early days of the internet. The earliest evidence of such might be the “Crypto Anarchist Manifesto” written by Tim May around 1988. Closely associated with the more literary “Cyberpunk” movement linked to writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson, this manifesto acclaimed an upcoming new age of online freedom where individuals would use freely available encryption technology to keep their communications confidential and anonymous, preventing state actors from intruding on the online social communications between individuals. The manifesto looked forward to an expected widespread uptake of encryption technology (which would secure e-mail messages and file transfers) in the belief that it would come to be “the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property”.

The internet is certainly anarchic in some basic ways – its technical structure is such that freedom of communication is the default position, all subsequent attempts to “lock this down” being a distortion of the natural freedom of information flow which is guaranteed by its foundational structures. This is a fortunate happenstance of the way the internet originated – as a means of communication between scientists looking to share information between themselves in a system only they had access to and with open access as its basic principle.

As we are all aware, things haven’t quite worked out like the dreams of the cyber-utopians! Organisations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation also date back to the internet’s emergence and in a sense constitute the aboveground counterpart to the hacktivist underground; where groups like Anonymous hack into and deface websites to protest bills like SOPA, the EFF launch online petitions and email based campaigns against the same targets but with tactics similar to groups like Amnesty International. But they do not always agree! A founding member of the EFF, John Perry Barlow, responded to the Anonymous attacks with “"I support freedom of expression, no matter whose, so I oppose DDoS attacks regardless of their target... they're the poison gas of cyberspace...".

(DDOS stands for Distributed Denial of Service - a common internet attack where many computers send a flood of information to a particular website or server in order to consume all its bandwidth or resources and take it out of service).

Ricardo Dominguez, a co-founder of the  hacktivist group “The Electronic Disturbance Theater” disagrees with John Perry Barlows condemnation of Anonymous’ use of DDOS attacks. The Electronic Disturbance theatre created one of the earliest DDOS tools, Floodnet, which they used in what they called virtual sit-ins in solidarity with the Zapatista’s in Chiapas, Mexico.

This tactical debate parallels similar arguments between liberal free speech defenders and supporters of the no platform for fascism stance.

In some respects real-world activism has an online counterpart in tactics such as the “virtual sit-ins” conducted by the Electronic Disturbance Theater. However, anarchist support for hacktivist actions needs to take into account whether mass participation and empowerment is a genuine possibility, as such actions can be in themselves inherently alienating and disempowering as the participant generally sits alone behind a screen rather than engaging in a social activity that brings them together with others and demonstrates their collective power to confront authority.

Groups like Lulzsec have taken the Hactivism torch into the more explicitly criminal hacking arena, for example when they released the accounts and passwords of 12,000 users of writerspace.com. Due to password reuse, many other accounts were then broken into including at least one paypal account. This leaves traditional political hacktivism quite far behind. On the other hand, before being shut down Lulzsec released interesting US Law Enforcement intelligence documents concerning the structure and threat level of the anarchist movement.

Hacktivism is a complex movement, containing actors which are worthy of support like Hackblock, and others which are closer to purely criminal and anti-social activity like Lulzsec. However, as I hope I have shown above it is not black and white as such a wide variety of actions are carried out by hactivist organisations, some being worthy of support while others are purely criminal and without merit. This is to be expected in such a leaderless and unorganised movement.

Hacktivism overall is an interesting field of activity that anarchists of a technical bent should pay close attention to and examine when and where such tactics can contribute to the advance of anarchist ideas and action.

In general broader participation through technologies like Twitter and Facebook is often of greater use to anarchists but I think there is something to be said for the diversity of tactics which more traditional hacktivist activities can bring to the table. They should be considered in the context of broader campaigns and in terms of how they can contribute in such cases where the tactics have relevance.

More background reading on the early days of Hactivism can be found in the book "Hacktivism and Cyberwars" by Tim Jordan and Paul A.Taylor(Routledge 2004). For more recent coverage there is an upcoming book on Anonymous entitled "We Are Anonymous" being written by Parmy Olson, a Forbes correspondent.

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