Has Technology Changed the Face of (H)Activism?

With the vast growth of technological advances the last decade, it is not a surprise that the use of the computer and other technology has modified how activists protest. The spread of technology has eased the process of forming protests around the world, as demonstrated by the protests around the Middle East, including Egypt to the point where its government felt compelled to disconnect the entire country from the Internet for some time. The capability of real-time communications can be very dangerous for unpopular government regimes throughout the world. They can gain followers quickly and update them just as fast. This kind of communication can also gather and organize both data and people and catalyze a movement as well as spur it forward.

Along with the advancements of technical knowledge, there have been advancements in the hacking and potential misuse of this technology. Internet activists, also known as “hacktivists,” are those who use illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools in the pursuit of political ends. They use code in order to promote political ideology. Groups like Anonymous and Lulzsec are filled with unknown individuals with hopes of achieving political ends with each movement, who work in a coordinated matter seeking a goal of freedom of speech. Individuals, such as Julian Assange, exercise their freedom of speech by releasing sensitive materials that expose information people should not be able to see. This is perhaps legal, but extremely unethical to many people, including those who believe in the Aristotle’s virtue ethics theory, which held 2000 years ago just as it does today.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics began by positing the existence of some ultimate good toward which, in the final analysis, all human actions ultimately aim. The necessary characteristics of that ultimate good must be complete, final, self-sufficient and continuous. Aristotle explained that virtue ethics refers to philosophies that place an emphasis on being rather than doing. This means that morality stems from the identity or character of an individual, not a reflection of that individual’s actions. An ethical analysis must be made in a case-by-case basis that would be based on factors such as personal benefit, group benefit, and intentions of the party (as to whether they may be benevolent or malevolent). Anonymous is a complex case because it is a group of people whose identities are unknown and may be claiming benevolent intentions while taking actions that may be only benefitting their group although they claim to help others.

Anonymous was formed on the imageboard 4chan, where people can chat and send pictures and files anonymously to one another. They run like an anarchic brain with no recognized or recognizable leaders, inspired by its own perceived anonymity (as shown by their logo, a suited figure without a head, ideal imagery for their group). Since circa 2006, members have collaborated through anonymous, untraceable Internet Relay Chat (IRC) protocols, in which there allows group communication, private messaging and data transfer, which includes file transfer. IRC chats allow this decentralized attack force to create plots and execute them surprisingly well to the outside world when Anonymous decides to agree on something, usually using member donated systems to commit distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks which crash remote servers by overloading the server with traffic. The thoughts of so many ingenious hackers combined into one untouchable group makes for a powerful influence on the social constructs of society, affecting people in more ways than they care to think about.

Although Anonymous sends a powerful message any common person can believe in and agree with, the way they go about executing responses to actions taken by governments are inappropriate and unethical. For example, the Egyptian government that disconnected the public from the Internet in order to prevent coordination of more protests, which had been causing the government problems. Anonymous, in an attempt to bring the Egyptians freedom of speech, decided to enact Operation Egypt. This operation began with a YouTube video posting of their intentions, claiming they have made themselves an enemy of their people and Anonymous by imposing censorship and condemning the freedom of speech, religion, association and free access to information. As usual with their messages, it was closed with “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive.
We do not forget.
Expect us.” They later proceeded to launch a DDoS attack on the Egyptian Government websites, crashing them and leaving them offline until Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

Although what Anonymous said was noble and bold, what they did was still extremely unethical and highly illegal. To purposely take down an entire government website is not the right thing to do during a nationwide revolution, regardless of its support for the revolutionaries, or if anyone else around the world does too. Their message was very inspiring in many ways, in speaking about standing together and united against oppression and to reclaim individual rights, but the actions taken were inappropriate. Whether or not the current government was respected by many at the time as a regime, Anonymous should have still respected the Egyptian government because they are a national power and should be treated as such. Inciting revolution is a right due to free speech but attacking anything that is not yours is not the right thing to do in order to further that ideal.

The ideal of anonymous is ethical. They stand as a name people can use in order to organize both distinct and individual diverging styles, no matter how much the members bicker about what actions are being carried out under their moniker. But the question is whether or not crashing a website is a morally justified means of protest. When considering this protest, or any other, the moral justification of the protest should be analyzed. If that protest is not and does some sort of wrong to those who are targeted by said protest, then the protest should seem morally wrong. Aristotle’s virtue ethical theory, which is concerned solely with the agent, is in contract with many other ethical platforms that take situations and analyze the relativity of the actions taken by individuals to others. The actions of individuals in this protest compared to the relevant moral community of the rest of the world is not ethical, because it is not something that any other group of people would do whose identities were known outside of that group.

The way that an anonymous group of people operate an organization, is much different than the way an individual running an organization does, as demonstrated by Julian Assange, “editor in chief” of whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Instead of taking some sort of action through the internet like Anonymous does, Assange releases data that involves topics such as Iraq and Afghan War documents, Guantanamo Bay procedures and extrajudicial killings in Kenya. He is hated by governments and loved by the public, helping him achieve awards such as the 2009 Amnesty International Media Award and the Reader’s Choice for TIME magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year, though he has been convicted for 26 counts of hacking/ accessing computers belonging to an Australian university, the USAF 7th Command Group in the Pentagon and other organizations.

Any functioning government needs to have secrets for the sake of national security, but in a democracy transparency is essential. Government officials who represent the people of a nation should not be doing dishonorable things and hiding it from their fellow citizens, their peers. The limit of the degree of secrecy governments should have is difficult to define; and although it is WikiLeaks and Assange’s job to expose data, it is not their job to use unethical means to get it. Getting information through connections and communication is not the same as using hacking tools in order to get information. Many actions taken by Assange have proven very ethical, and in Aristotle’s eyes, accepted in the view of the moral community, thus earning him his impressive awards around the world. But a couple of the actions have shown to be unethical, such as the hacking of the United States government servers at the Pentagon. It may or may not be ethical for the United States to withhold information from the public for a plethora or reasons, but that does not allow Assange to do what he did, as it is not only illegal, but is frowned upon by the rest of the world, and as such, it is unethical and immoral to do so.

Both Anonymous and Julian Assange aim to do the same thing, and that is to utilize and expand the freedom of speech for the people of the world. As Assange once wrote, his philosophy is “To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly or boldly for it we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us and discover technological changed that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.” Essentially, both Anonymous and Assange seek to allow the world to make changes to regimes, as they seem fit, and believe they have the potential to help individuals to make those changes, but in their quest for their ultimate “freedom,” they may have condemned other freedoms for people around the world.

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2 Responses to Has Technology Changed the Face of (H)Activism?

  1. Jordi says:

    The very point of ethics, I think, is that it cannot be synonymous with legality. Many laws may exist in the USA and other nations that are unethical. The ability for people, under conditions of relative freedom or oppression, to imagine other moral realities and then pursue them through various means is essential in order for rightness or wrongness of actions to be considered. So, to me, your argument about the ethics of hactivism needs to separate what is legal from what is ethical.

    Do the wikileaks people (not just Assange) deserve their own virtue ethics analysis? What moral community are they trying to be consistent with? Did you look at their being and not just deeds?

    Speaking of ethics, I am curious and concerned at how the financial gatekeepers imposed a financial blockade on wikileaks. This was not any government decision, but reflects corporate decision-makers deciding who their clients can support. The banks and credit card companies decide who you can support. http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/wikileaks-suspends-publication-of-secrets-amid-financial-blockade/61654

  2. Pingback: Anonymous has a new Toy! « NetSecurityIT

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