‘Hactivism’ against Censorship: Civil Disobedience or Criminal Nuisance?

‘Hactivism’ – illegally tampering with websites as an act of protest – has gained unprecedented publicity, thanks to Anonymous, a scattered group of possibly thousands of activists who have collectively launched cyber-attacks on governments and private companies “to keep the internet open and free.” It first launched large-scale attacks in 2010 on the websites of Mastercard, Visa, and other companies who revoked services from WikiLeaks after the U.S. declared WikiLeaks illegal. Anonymous called any “anti-Wikileaks company” an enemy in a “war on data.”

In 2011, the group set its eyes on the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa, hacking into government websites to protest various internet censorship policies. In June, Anonymous launched “Operation Turkey,” disrupting Turkish government websites to protest its new mandate for all online users to sign up for one of four internet filtering settings, which according to Anonymous, not only restricted internet access but enabled the government to monitor individual internet activity. Anonymous launched a distributed denial of service (DDoS), in which numerous websites flooded the target websites with requests, rendering them too busy to function.  An unofficial Anonymous spokesman proclaimed the tactic a valid method of protest: “When truck drivers go on strike they block all the roads. It’s the same principle.” Anonymous also recently targeted Iran and United Arab Emirates, stealing and displaying ten thousand government user names and passwords. Reportedly, the attack on Iranian websites was conducted in view of the second anniversary of the controversial 2009 election.   

Anonymous is not the only ‘hactivist’ group out there, and in all likelihood, groups will continue cropping up to challenge perceived repression or other wrongdoing. In Nigeria, a group called the Naija Cyber Hactivists (NCH) recently penetrated the government’s websites, with the  stated objectives of having Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan reduce exorbitant spending on his inauguration and, most significantly, to push the Nigerian Government to sign into law a Freedom of Information Act. The Bill, which was introduced twelve years ago, was signed just a few days into the cyber-attack.

Do these recent bouts of hactivism constitute civil disobedience – morally justifiable breaches of law – or are they merely criminal acts? 

There are wide-ranging views of civil disobedience, but a generally accepted principle is that a legitimate act of civil disobedience requires that both the actor’s motivation and the chosen action be defensible, in view of the society’s interests. Combating country-sponsored internet censorship, particularly in countries where political repression is the norm, is not a difficult cause to find worthy as long as the actor has genuine sympathy for the cause and is not mainly pursuing self-serving interests, such as display of skill or fame for its own sake. Attacking private persons or companies for their actions, however, like Anonymous’ attacks on Mastercard and Visa servers for revoking support of WikiLeaks, has evoked mixed opinion. Some might consider it to be a legitimate form of protest in the fight for transparency and free expression, while others may hold that it undermines the very principle of freedom of expression.

The nature of the action requires further consideration. Philosophers have posited several factors bearing on the defensibility of the chosen conduct, such as: its nonviolent nature; its use as a last resort in the absence of reasonable legal means; the specificity with which the action targets the perceived wrongdoing; and the level of resulting harm to innocents. However, possibly the most ready critique that keeps “hactivists” from comparison to the likes of Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. is their lack of directness, with respect to both their identities, as well as their purpose for implementing specific attacks. The logic or true motive of stealing and publishing government passwords is not immediately apparent and will remain contested. While Anonymous describes its purpose as “keeping the internet open and free”, its critics describe it as a group that “specializes in political attacks on banks, politicians, and basically any idea or concept they don’t like.”  “Hactivism” has been around as early as 1989 and seemed to have always sparked polarizing moral reaction. But given the increasing recognition of internet freedom in the last two years and the spreading awareness of internet censorship around the world, will history ultimately prove it as legitimate a tool as marches and demonstrations?

Margaret-Ann Scotti


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