A very viral protest

With hacktivism on the rise, Jack Walsh discusses whether it really is the most effective form of protest.

Since the late 1980s and the emergence of the digital age, a growing evolution of how protests are orchestrated has begun to take effect. Hacktivism, as online methods of protesting are now broadly known, contains the key elements of political motivation and is often the result of aggressive policy circumvention, rather than a gradual attempt to change a policy.

In today’s media the topic of hacktivism is one of controversy, with two dominant strands of thinking emerging on the subject. One side believes the idea to be a practical application of how electronic direct action might work toward social change by combining programming skills with critical thinking, while the other argues that the culture of hacking is cyber-terrorism and that the movement’s main ideals are synonymous with malicious, destructive acts that undermine the security of the internet as a social platform

Hacktivist activities support a variety of political ideals and issues. Freenet is a prime example of translating political thought into code. Hacktivismo is an offshoot of hacker/media organisation Cult of the Dead Cow and its beliefs include access to information as a basic human right. The loose network of programmers, artists and radical militants of the 1984 network liberty alliance are concerned with issues of free speech and privacy in an era of increased technological surveillance.

However, the most dominant protest group that has been synonymous with the use of website hacking is ‘Anonymous’, who many use as an example of both the efficiency and the danger of using such tactics. Since 2008, the group have launched a number of attacks, in particular the hacking of sites of major firms such as MasterCard.

The group have been involved in all manner of political protests. This year alone they have declared their support for the Occupy Wall Street movement and replaced the Fine Gael general election campaign with the message: “Nothing is safe, you put your faith in this political party and they take no measures to protect you. They offer you free speech yet they censor your voice. WAKE UP!”.

While some may describe amateur and unorganised examples of hacktivism as merely immature, it is evident from larger groups such as Anonymous that hacktivism has a worryingly aggressive side. However, with this form of unidentified activism, any protest instantaneously loses its human angle and ultimately brings attention to the group’s actions, rather than the group themselves.

Following recent online attacks by Anonymous on child pornography websites, under the umbrella name ‘Operation Darknet’,  in which the website ‘Lolita City’ was hacked and over 1,500 frequent visitors of the website were published online, several critics have praised this action’s intentions. However, many still believe that online vigilantism should not be attempted.  Graham Cluley of the British security firm Sophos said: “Their intentions may have been good, but take-downs of illegal websites and sharing networks should be done by the authorities, not internet vigilantes.”  Cluley shed light on the subject by explaining that civilian activism often can disrupt investigations and surveillances by authorities, and such actions often prevent prosecutions due to the fact that evidence has been tampered with by hackers. Once more this demonstrates the flaws that are evident in the hacktivist’s decisions, and as such the decisions of any protestor who chooses to believe that malicious cyber-attacks are an acceptable form of direct action.

It is apparent that activism has indeed changed.  With these new forms of protests we are bearing witness to the abandonment of a social ideal of protests, a school of thought that has been in place to counter the ideas of groups such as Anonymous, maintaining that all protests, regardless of subject or purpose should be peaceful and refrain from destruction.  Most importantly, however, it is the human aspects of protesting, the communal sense of support and unity, that are ultimately being lost.