We Should All Be ‘Hacktivists’ Now
HEATHER BROOKE | GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE
ALACK of government oversight hasn’t hindered the internet.
Quite the opposite. A hands-off approach is largely responsible for its fantastic growth and success.
The tremendous innovation and economic boon produced by the free internet should be proof enough that the dead hand of government isn’t needed.
Yet governments around the world have woken up to the power of the internet, or to be precise, the power it gives people to communicate freely.
Politicians and bureaucrats are lining up to take control of it - doing so by force in authoritarian regimes or under the guise of protecting national sovereignty, citizen welfare or copyright in democracies. They look to China as a model for how to reap the financial rewards of the net without the “dangerous” side-effect of free speech.
This is the information war we are now engaged in. Governments are seeking to militarise cyberspace while citizens fight for the right to communicate and assemble freely online without state surveillance.
In my book The Revolution Will Be Digitised I suggest that the internet provides the technology to create the greatest global democracy we’ve seen, but equally it can be used to create the greatest totalitarian state: a global panopticon of which Jeremy Bentham could only dream. What we end up with depends on the actions taken in the next five years.
We need to codify our values and build consensus around what we want from a free society and a free internet.
We need to put into law protections for our privacy and our right to speak and assemble. But how do we do this? A generation of people are being radicalised by the criminalisation of information sharing. The Anonymous group recently launched its Operation Trial at Home campaign to protest the extradition treaty the UK has with the US and orders to extradite Nasa hacker Gary McKinnon and TVShack website operator Richard O’Dwyer. Anonymous’s strategy in the fight against what it sees as an overly secretive state and powerful corporations is to send a message of defiance.
It’s true that certain industries have used their resources to lobby politicians to pass laws that artificially prop up outdated business models. As an author I’m all for making creative work sustainable, but putting kids in jail for sharing their favourite songs or movies isn’t right.
However, to be successful, a campaign to maintain the free internet and freedom of information has to go beyond vandal hackers. Stunts designed not to provoke dialogue or persuade the public of the rightness of the cause but simply to throw up a middle finger to authority are more hindrance than help.
Strategies that work are ones that are collaborative and seek to persuade.
Bombing down websites may produce a temporary result and perhaps a headline in the papers, but such antics feed into governments’ desire for an arms race.
There are other hacktivists who follow a different path. I look at the campaigns fought against restrictive US legislation Sopa and the Acta treaty that worked within the law. By gathering support for ideas and champions these battles were turned into mainstream movements that raised awareness, changed public opinion and led to changes in law. If laws are felt to be unjust then in a democratic country, part of a campaign is also about changing the law. Circumventing it means the root problem goes unfixed.
The problem for any campaign is the difficulty inherent in social co-operation.
It’s hard to get people to work together. Activists in Iceland achieved something remarkable in June 2010 when parliament unanimously passed a resolution to create the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, a set of laws that would guarantee free speech and a free internet. Getting those laws in place has proved a time-consuming and difficult process, but they are gradually getting on to the statute books.
Some hacktivists reacted to PayPal’s blocking of payments to WikiLeaks with Operation Payback, a denial-ofservice attack to temporarily take down the website. While this had no impact on world banking, another group of hacktivists set up Flattr, a micropayment website that provides an alternative to the Visa/Mastercard/PayPal domination of online payments.
Siim Teller, who works at Flattr, believes “finding the business leaders who align with open, free internet ideas and getting them to act as both figureheads but also funders could be the key”.
I agree. There are many businesses that have a lot to lose if it is made harder to innovate because of a government- regulated internet. We need to work with all friends of the free internet to lobby worldwide for maintain the free flow of information online. The world may be more complex and uncertain than we would like, but giving away our freedom to governments under the false promise of protection will, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, leave us with neither freedom nor security.