Hacktivism: the poison gas of cyberspace

The Anonymous hackers waging ‘cyber war’ in defence of Wikileaks are, ironically, acting censoriously.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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Left, right and centre, the webpages of great and mighty merchants have been going down. It’s been digitised carnage. The first to fall belonged to Visa and Mastercard. Next down were e-commerce giant PayPal and Swiss bank PostFinance. And then online retailer Amazon reportedly took a hit, although, proud book-selling beast that it is, this has been denied. Still, the past few days have been a picture of pixelated brutality, a bloody tangle of javascript and html. But then, that’s what happens when geeks attack: webpages get hurt.

The cause of the hackers’ unrest is the decision of each of the companies targeted to stop doing business with Wikileaks. That means that payments and donations are not being processed and, in the case of Amazon, webhosting services have been withdrawn. Wikileaks is effectively being starved of financial support, allegedly at the behest of the US government. The attacks were retaliation. ‘Operation Avenge Assange’, as one hacktivist saw fit to name it.

Many of those frontline reporters watching the battle unfold have been very excited. This, as too many have been encouraged to anoint it, is the first ‘cyber war’, the opening salvo in an information conflict between the mighty and the geek. On the one side stands the old order, an unholy combination of state actors and transnational corporations that is secretly pursuing its own nefarious ends. Arrayed on the other side are the internet freedom fighters, an amalgamation of individuals very loosely identified by their collective moniker, Anonymous. As their portentous, Dungeons and Dragons-style call to keyboards puts it: ‘The future of the internet hangs in the balance. We are Anonymous. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.’

And that’s precisely what Anonymous have been doing – turning up in their thousands on the offending companies’ websites and, by sheer weight of digital traffic, causing the sites to crash. This is what those in the trade call a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.

If the cyber war has been a little over-hyped, it’s as nothing compared to the claims made for the Anonymous hackers supposedly raging against the illiberal machine. ‘What is at stake is nothing less than the freedom of the internet’, concluded a Guardian editorial. Its sister paper, the Observer, was equally as effusive about the laptop militants: ‘The clash has cast the spotlight wider, on the net’s power to act as a thorn not only in the side of authoritarian regimes but Western democracies, on our right to information and the responsibility of holding secrets.’

That would be fantastic if Anonymous and its assorted offshoots actually had a coherent idea of freedom. Because while it might be an admirable impulse to defend freedom of speech for Assange and Wikileaks, along with their right to publish the information that has fallen into their hands, the hackers’ actual response rather undermines the freedom-loving impulse. After all, what is a denial-of-service attack if not a form of silencing, a censorious form of anti-censorship.

This is why advocates of internet freedom have been more than a little uneasy with the pro-Wikileaks website attacks. ‘I support freedom of expression, no matter whose’, Electronic Frontier Foundation’s John Perry Barlow told Reuters, ‘so I oppose DDoS attacks regardless of their target. They’re the poison gas of cyberspace.’ Open access campaigner Jim Killock agreed: ‘I think the people who have done it have already realised their mistake – they’re meant to be standing up in favour of openness and freedom of speech, and they’re trying to stop people from doing things on the internet.’

Yes, one could counter that it wasn’t so much a political liberty being violated by the hackers’ attacks as a companies’ economic liberty to pursue its business unimpeded. But Anonymous has been equally censorious when it comes to actual freedom of speech. Take the campaign that brought them to international attention: the crusade against the Church of Scientology. The initial spark, it seemed, was the church’s decision to have leaked videos of stuff like Tom Cruise making a fool of himself removed from the internet. Anonymous’ mobilisation against the church, crashing its websites, publicising details of its misdeeds, and even holding a day of protest outside the church’s bases across the world, did seem like it was born as a reaction against an act of censorship. But their response was no less illiberal. Just as the Scientologists wanted to keep certain information out of the public domain, so Anonymous wanted to keep the public away from the church. Whether from the perspective of the Scientologist or hacktivist, the public here are deemed too daft to be able to make their own minds up about the church.

As a means to defend internet freedom, denying the freedom of others is a funny way of going about it. It seems that Anonymous are all for people’s freedom to expose the machinations of two-faced diplomats (or, as it’s otherwise known, diplomacy). It seems that they are all for the right to humiliate and mock the Church of Scientology. But when it comes to the freedom of private companies to disapprove of Wikileaks, or the freedom of the Church of Scientology to try to persuade people to take the church’s stress tests, then those are freedoms too far.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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