Hacktivism: Accepting illegal activity to promote human rights

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

“Imagine if computer hackers, the daredevils of the networked world, suddenly became principled political activists; if they had a mission besides breaking and entering; if they had more to prove than that they are smarter than whoever designed your computer system, if their targets were selected as part of well organized, thoroughly researched, international human rights campaigns.” - Naomi Klein.

Today we are living in a world wherein the relation between citizens and governments is shadowed by other political interests than the good of the citizens. Does the government serve the citizens by the regulations it imposes or is it about controlling their freedom? Well, this is a discussion debated by many scholars and activists who talk about democracy and attract other people to participate in creating an ideal social order in societies.

Since the internet appeared in our lives, computers have become not only electronic devices for storing and processing data but an indispensable tool in participating in these types of debates. In his captivating paper for the World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory Conference held at Drake University in 1998, Stefan Wray describes the Internet as a

“Powerful way to resist war and an excellent tool for pacifists”.

Moreover, Wray states that 1998 could be viewed as an important moment in the history of the browser wars when the phenomenon of hacktivism has emerged. Wray mentions reports of hacktivity in almost every continent at that time when people with hacking skills just discovered that they could do good in the world through this medium.

Hacktivism is “computer hacking (as by infiltration and disruption of a network or website) done to further the goals of political or social activism” – Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Hacktivism movements are “one of the ways of civil people to participate into the global politics through the public sphere, communicate their ideas and promote the principles of democracy using the technology of hacking computer” – Fitri (2012).

An early hacktivity Wray discusses is the example of a young British hacker known as “JF”, who accessed about 300 websites and placed anti-nuclear text and imagery in the spring of 1998 by entering, changing, and adding HTML code.

“At that point it was the biggest political hack of its kind” – ibid.

Since multiple media outlets reported on the incident to their audiences, the subject continued to move through the media sphere rapidly, initiating more debates on whether it is acceptable or not to use hacking skills in this manner.

Fitri claims in her article “Democracy Discourses through the Internet Communication: Understanding the Hacktivism for the Global Changing” (2012) that hacktivists are only trying “to promote freedom of information through the internet” and “to transform the message of hackers’ beliefs about the future of world” (ibid.). Therefore, even if it is an illegal activity, hacktivists promote human rights, freedom, and justice.

“It is never the technical stuff that gets you in trouble. It is the personalities and the politics.” - Cook quoted in Fitri (2012).

However, most hacktivists prefer to remain anonymous because “the stakes are higher” (Wray, 1998) when challenging global politics. Another reason for the anonymity is the illegality aspect because, in order to access another person’s computer, one can destroy the privacy on that specific computer to add or change HTML code. Therefore, they prefer to remain anonymous for personal reasons of security.

Hacktivism is still an unexplored subject, although many scholars have addressed the topic in their writings. Some of them approve of this type of intervention, while others disapprove of this “more secret, private, low key, and anonymous nature of the politicized hacks” (ibid.). Because hacktivism is not a traditional type of activism intervention, it does not require mobilization or mass participation.

Cult of the Dead Cow

“As it evolved from a pre-web community into something like a hacker performance-art troupe, cDc members started the first hacker convention to invite media and law enforcement. They developed hacking tools that are still being used by criminals, spies, and professional network administrators. And they invented the term hacktivism, which the group defined as hacking in defense of human rights.” - ibid.

It all started in 1984 when three men founded this group as a way to make their intentions public and open community discussions. According to Menn (2019), it began when one of the founders embraced “an unregulated internet not only as a great thing but as one needing active defense in the political realm”.

’Political Rant #1’: “The Computer Underground, once made up of people interested only in free software, free phone calls, and flaming each other’s hardware, now finds itself having to actually think about politics and strategies. They have to get involved in the political process, and they may have to go out and vote, for chrissakes!” – written by Chris in a cDc file, quoted in Menn (2019).

Nowadays, this group is known to have been “contributed for the internet freedom and democracy” (Fitri, 2012) and to have “multiple claims on history” (Menn, 2019). As mentioned earlier, the members of these types of groups preferred to remain anonymous considering that they promote discussions in an illegal manner that involve issues made by governments.

Moreover, by being anonymous, they gain more freedom of expression without being judged by the public or even by the people in powerful positions. It is not known exactly how many members are in the Cult of the Dead Cow but some of them are influential people.

One of the most familiar hacktivism interventions developed by the cDc members is the “Goolag” campaign from 2006 when Google decided to comply with China’s Internet censorship policy. In response, the cDc created “Goolag”, which is a vulnerability software, and released Goolag Scanner, “a webauditing tool which enables everyone to audit his or her own website via Google” (Fitri, 2012). This campaign achieved four things:

“1) an increased awareness of Website vulnerabilities, 2) an increased awareness of Google’s compliance with censorship practices in China, 3) refreshed the public of the presence of the cDc, and 4) promoted a tool that can be used for more constructive purposes.” - Ranario quoted in Fitri (2012).

More than that, cDc encouraged readers to make merchandise mocking Google’s logo and donate any profits from their sales to Human Rights in China. Also, on the 14th of February in the same year, students for a Free Tibet held an anti-Google meeting in India, implementing the logo in multiple ways in their movement. So, the campaign reached a substantial number of people in many countries, involving them in trying to make a change.

Finally, I conclude that hacktivism is a political intervention, through which people express their ideas about politics and are trying to participate in making political changes for a better future in any society. Although it involves illegal activity, the participants’ intentions are good, considering they advocate for freedom and human rights in the global sphere.

So, after better understanding hacktivism, do you think it is a right way of a digital activism intervention?

Reference List:

Wray, S. (1998) "Electronic Civil Disobedience and the World Wide Web of Hacktivism: A Mapping of Extraparliamentarian: Direct Action Net Politics". World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory Conference. Drake University. Available at: Electronic Civil Disobedience and the World Wide Web of Hacktivism (webfx.com) (Accessed 13 October 2021).

Fitri, N. (2012) "Democracy Discourses through the Internet Communication: Understanding the Hacktivism for the Global Changing". Communication Politics. Available at: Democracy Discourses through the Internet Communication: Understanding the Hacktivism for the Global Changing | yellowpolitics (wordpress.com) (Accessed 13 October 2021).

Menn, J. (2019) Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World. Hachette UK. Available at: Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save ... - Joseph Menn - Google Books (Accessed 13 October 2021).

Jardin, X. (2006) Exiled Tibetans in Dharamsala protest Google censorship in China. Boing Boing. Available at: https://boingboing.net/2006/02/14/exiled-tibetans-in-d.html (Accessed 13 October 2021).

This article is written as part of an assignment for the Digital Activism class in the MA Media and Creative Cultures program at the University of Greenwich.

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