Beyond Social Media and Toward Hacktivism


A lot of articles on PolicyMic and elsewhere have focused on the uses and misuses of social media in political contexts. The primary conclusion drawn from these articles is that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook (do I have to even mention them; their invocation is so ubiquitous) can be put to good use or to bad depending on whether they are cleverly employed by social activists or repressive governments. But these sites are just tools that effect change by allowing people to communicate more quickly and broadly. Yes, protests can spring up at the send of a Tweet, but censorship can follow close behind, or worse, make use of these tools for propaganda and intimidation. (What if you received a Tweet from a pro-democracy group at one moment and then received a text from the government's intelligence organization with a picture of a jail cell the next? You might give up your protest). Additionally, there are other ways in which the internet isn't just a tool for protest but rather is the site of protest; the internet is becoming an arena of activism — or hacktivism – and we should do what we can to preserve the internet as such a place.

For my purposes, hacktivism is a broad term defined as unauthorized access or manipulation of data that is socially or politically motivated. It can take many forms, from electronic defacement of websites, to the promulgation of messages, to attacks on the functioning of websites, to the manipulation of data, and outright theft, and it can be aimed at private (often corporate) websites or government websites. Not surprisingly, many corporations and governments want these variants of hacktivism to be criminalized or at least penalized; but I disagree.

The internet needs some special help (and in this case, exceptions) in order to help preserve all of the gains that free speech has won in liberal societies. Take an example: I'm a hacker and break into Shell's website and insert code that forces every site visitor to encounter a pop-up outlining my allegations of the company's human rights abuses in Nigeria. Your reaction might be, “Well that's illegal, it's their site.” Or if I put clips from “Supersize Me” on McDonald's website, you might say, “You're causing financial damage to the company.”

It's true, I might slow down Shell's website or convince people not to buy McDonald's, but how is this any different from the business losses I might incur by protesting loudly outside their store or headquarters? If I can convince people not to go into their store by talking with them outside, then I'm allowed to do so, even if that results in less money for the golden arches. The permissibility of free speech supersedes the damage I might cause or inconvenience I create for customers.

Your response might be to question the analogy between in-the-world protests and cyber-vandalism: “If you protest McDonald's, you have to be on public property like a sidewalk, but when you put pop-ups on their site, you are on their electronic property. Therefore, hacktivism does not enjoy the protection that free speech does.” But this objection is precisely my point. There are no sidewalks (or public property) in cyberspace to protest a website. If a store I don't like is near a public place, I can force customers to that store to hear my words and feel the force of my protest. In the internet, there is nothing analogous, and so permitting hacktivism might be one way to return parity to protesters and make their views known.

Of course, there are more aggressive types of hacktivism, such as revealing confidential data or altering the code of websites in more fundamental ways. Considering that ordinary governmental enforcement of laws in cyberspace is far behind internet innovation, it may be worth to try and shape a hacktivist culture rather than attempt to legally uproot it.

For a final striking example, take this real situation: Chinese prisoners are forced to perform repetitive actions in Blizzard's World of Warcraft in order to sell the products to American gamers. If hacktivists altered the code of the game to negate the product of these rote activities (so that the prisoners could not be exploited in this way) or if they destroyed the accounts of Americans who knowingly patronized these electronic sweatshops, would they be in the wrong?

I'm not sure, but my point is just to note that rather than patting ourselves on the back for how we can supposedly Tweet revolutions into existence, we should think about how the internet is being fundamentally transformed in a way that may take away familiar democratic tools.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons