Whoever controls the flow of information in the network society essentially has the power. The Internet is a distributed network, with distributed control. As a result individual nodes have more power than ever and some are using this power to their advantage more than others. So why can’t, in this new borderless space, all information just flow freely?
Steven Levy, a technology journalist, coined the term “hacker ethic” in 1984. This term references a sort of hacker philosophy that runs deep within their community. Since the early age of the personal computer “hacks” have been performed, this is the legal or illegal manipulation of computer systems or networks. The hacker ethic contained seven core elements (Kelly, 2012):
- Access to computers should be totally unrestricted
- Hackers should always honour the “Hands-On Imperative”
- Information should be free
- Hackers should distrust authority and promote decentralization
- Hackers should judge their peers only by their hacking, rather than any educational or professional pedigree
- It is possible to create beauty and art within the confines of a computer
- Computers can better a person’s life
This ethic has certainly played a role in the leap from “hacker” to “hacktivist”. The hacker community seems to have developed from rejecting a centralised structure, which is how most governments, large corporations and religious institutions are organised (Kelly, 2012). Funnily enough, it is usually governments, corporations and religious institutions that are targeted by hacktivists, and it is usually because they withhold information… and, well, information just wants to be free.
Hacktivists tend to form a collective and they tend to engage in illegal (at least more so than legal) computer activity. An example of one of these hacktivist collectives is ‘Anonymous’. Anonymous defines itself as an “internet gathering” with a “very loose and decentralized command structure that operates on ideas rather than directives” (Kelly, 2012). Prior to 2008 Anonymous was most notable for Internet pranks like the “rickroll” and “lolcats”. However in January of 08 Anonymous had a run in with the Church of Scientology, which changed the ‘groups’ public perception for good. The Church tried to suppress various Internet media outlets’ from publishing a video of super scientology star Tom Cruise, as he spoke incoherently and fanatically about the religion. More than 6000 members participated in the operation and donned Guy Fawkes masks as they protested in the streets on 90 cities worldwide (Kelly, 2012). Meanwhile online members raided Scientology websites and prevented the Cruise video from disappearing online. One Anonymous member stated,
“Scientology tried to fuck with our internet, attempting to shut down the Cruise video. It was punished, hard, and continues to be punished nearly four years later. . . . Anonymous was born out of a need to exact retribution. . . . The targets may have broadened but the essential message is the same.” (Kelly, 2012)
It was this attack on Scientology that shaped Anonymous and the world’s perception of it, as the group revealed three key characteristics.
- An unrelenting moral stance on issues and rights, regardless of direct provocation.
- A physical presence that accompanies online hacking activity.
- A distinctive brand.
Just one year after these characteristics were revealed Anonymous had launched cyber attacks on US Government entities, threatened to take on America’s critical infrastructure, and acted as a key participant in a huge public protest that sought to uproot American establishment (Kelly, 2012). This is certainly not a “rickroll”.
Kelly, Brian 2012 “Investing in a Centralized Cybersecurity Infrastructure: Why ‘Hacktivism’ can and should influence cybersecurity reform”. Boston University Law Review 92 (5): 1678–1680. Retrieved September 29, 2013.