Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, August 29, 2011

cDc's Oxblood Defines "Hactivism" and Critiques Anonymous

Radio Free Europe:
Oxblood Ruffin: Hacktivism uses technology to improve human rights. It also employs nonviolent tactics and is aligned with the original intent of the Internet, which is to keep things up and running. With regard to tactics, things like DDoS attacks, Web defacements, malware, and network breaches are off limits. These generally limit speech and are a violation of the First Amendment and contradict Articles 19 of the UNDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] and ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]. We may not like what certain people or organizations have to say but their rights are protected just as ours are. Justice [Louis] Brandeis put it neatly in Whitney v. California, "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."
Later in the interview Oxblood shakes the finger a bit, castigating that "People claiming to be hacktivists should A, actually understand what the term means, then B, be strategic." I think what is being referred to here are those who indulge in reactionary or reckless acts and want to call it "hactivism" (something that is never NOT happening, frankly), and is more or less pulling rank as the one who coined the term and as someone whose practices over a generation have more or less defined the domain.

Of course, nobody controls the meaning of a term definitively. Meanings change as they are taken up, and it is one of the tragicomedies of the politics of language-use that words we release into the world (like all our words and deeds) take on a life of their own, have unintended consequences, require ongoing intervention and improvisation on all our parts if we would try to steer their course in any measure. That said, I do rather sympathize with Oxblood's definition and with the concern over what happens when "hactivism" comes unmoored from an explicit ethos of facilitating global human rights culture.

I find Oxblood's emphasis here on "keep[ing] things up and running" enormously appealing. It is interesting to notice that it is actually a rather conservative emphasis in an engineering rather than partisan political way, and just as hacking is: a way of testing the robustness of systems we count on by exposing them to real-world stresses insiders have a vested interest in insulating them from in ways that put everybody at risk. So, too, "hactivism" exposes dysfunctions in the institutions and systems through which the scene of legible consent is administered, ensuring our consent is informed rather than misinformed, non-duressed by insecurity and by threats of violence, exploitation, inequity, harm. This sort of engineering "conservatism" -- rather like the commons conservationism with which it is linked both historically and etymologically -- can yield revolutionary democratic politics in an era in which the right is hell bent not on conserving but dismantling civilizational systems of information, mediation, and support and looting commons for short-term parochial gain.

Although the repudiation of DDoS tactics seems pretty absolute, this position becomes much more nuanced as the interview continues on. Oxblood writes: "If the objective [of hactivism] is winning hearts and minds, then social media is the way to go. At least within the liberal democracies. But when we're talking about dictatorships, then teaching activists to use anonymizing and privacy-enhancing technologies is the cornerstone. It's difficult to organize if you're being anticipated and arrested before you can put any plans into action." This distinction provides the larger context in which to understand the strategic exception Oxblood carves out a few sentences earlier: My understanding is that Anonymous Iran (which should be viewed as an autonomous operations group) is planning to DDoS a website collecting data on Iranian activists…. Elections [in Iran] are a sham; basic human rights are vigorously denied; the judiciary is an extension of a corrupt government. DDoSing the media -- which are essentially government propaganda organs -- is not a violation of speech when it protects human rights and saves lives. This would be an exception to established hacktivist tactics but a justifiable one."

There are really useful and substantive distinctions being elaborated here for hactivism as a democratizing practice. More troubling to me, however, is the distinction Oxblood seems to want to leverage near the end of the interview: "I've heard DDoSing referred to as the digital equivalent of a lunch counter sit-in, and quite frankly I find that offensive. It's like a cat burglar comparing himself to Rosa Parks. Implicit in the notion of civil disobedience is a willful violation of the law; deliberate arrest; and having one's day in court. There is none of that in DDoSing. By comparison to the heroes of the civil rights movement DDoSing tactics are craven." I completely agree that drawing an analogy between DDoSing and Sit-Ins is wrongheaded, but it is hard for me to square Oxblood's recognition of the indispensable link between nonviolent civil disobedience and invitation of arrest as a way of putting unjust laws themselves on trial and the role of anonymity and pseudonymity within the hactivist ethos more generally.

For another thing, I think that there are surely times when DDoS tactics and the like might be affirmed within notionally democratic societies for pretty much the same reasons Oxblood rightly affirms them in more obviously authoritarian ones like Iran. Further, I am quite troubled by what seems to me Oxblood's rather glib declaration: "Back in the 60s Timothy Leary told the hippies to turn on, tune in, and drop out. That is much easier done these days with the proper technology and none of the same side-effects. Anonymous is something everyone should be. It's the antidote to the commercial surveillance network otherwise known as the Internet." I disagree both with the declaration that such anonymity is easily possible in liberal democracies (indeed, I think such anonymity may be altogether impossible in ubiquitously marketed and mediated spectacular societies such as our own, and I worry there is a whiff of dangerous technophilia in daydreaming otherwise) as well as with the suggestion that were such anonymity possible it would have no side-effects (I suspect the substance of freedom indispensably depends in a non-negligible measure on our exposure and accountability to unwanted or at any rate unexpected scrutiny). This is not to deny that there is an indispensable role for anonymous whistleblowers in the maintenance of reliable systems of information and support, and no small measure (though far from all, I would say) of hactivism properly belongs under this heading. Still, over-generalizing from that need into a comprehensive political worldview leads to the sort of full-blown foolishness the crypto-anarchists indulged in (for my take on crypto-anarchy start here and keep on reading as long as you can stand -- the stuff is from my dissertation Pancryptics).

There really is an interesting ambivalence playing out throughout the interview (or at least it seems like that to me). I find it rather hard to square the absolutism of Oxblood's declaration "Hacking Sony doesn't do anything to improve human rights anywhere" with the more nuanced claim that precedes it: "Everything is on a case by case basis. With regard to Anonymous Iran, they've specifically targeted a government website that asks people to submit data on suspected subversives. It's no big secret that such people are arrested, tortured, and even disappeared. So in this case I have zero problem with DDoSing the site to make a point." I certainly agree with Oxblood that "[s]ocially conscious hackers… [and] [h]acktivism is a lot bigger than hacking." But civil libertarianism is also a lot bigger than libertarianism, and I wonder whether vestiges of deeply-entrenched libertopian technoculture sometimes muddles the assumptions and aspirations of socially conscious hackers even at their best.

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