Gabriella Coleman on Hacking as Political Protest

Today’s New York Times reports that Anonymous has shut down the Egyptian government’s Web sites in support of antigovernment protests. Gabriella ‘Biella’ Coleman, an assistant professor in Steinhardt’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, weighs in on hacking.

What is a ‘hacker?’ Do hackers have a code of ethics?

The term hacker usually conjures images of basement dwellers typing furiously away at their keyboard bent on causing Internet hell. As an anthropologist whose focus of ethnographic study is hackers and geeks, it is important to start by addressing the stereotypes that so dominate public perceptions. In the most general terms, “hacker” is a technologist with a love for computing and a “hack” is a clever technical solution arrived through a non-obvious means. It doesn’t mean to compromise the Pentagon, change your grades, or take down the global financial system, although it can, but that is a very narrow reality of the term. Hackers tend to value a set of liberal principles: freedom, privacy, and access; they tend to adore computers; some gain unauthorized access to technologies, though the degree of illegality greatly varies (and much, even most of hacking, by the definition I set above, is actually legal). But once one confronts hacking empirically, some similarities melt into a sea of differences; some of these distinctions are subtle, while others are profound enough to warrant thinking about hacking in terms of genres or genealogies of hacking — and my work and teaching compares and contrasts various of these genealogies, such as free and open source software hacking and the hacker underground, who are more transgressive in their pursuits.

Is hacking an exercise of free speech?

Just as there is depth and variability to hacking, there are many rich and distinct connections between free speech and hacking. For instance, free and open source software developers (who make software such as the web browser, Firefox) are committed to making the underlying directions of software—source code—accessible for viewing, distribution, and modification. They do so by relying on novel licensing arrangements, such as the copyleft, whose logic sits it marked contrast to copyright. Many free software developers also conceptualize source code as a form of free speech and challenge forms of regulation that limit their ability to write and circulate source code.

Talk about how hacking has been used as a form of political protest.

Recently the question of “hacktivism” has been raised in the news, following the wave of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against Mastercard and Paypal coordinated by activists bearing the name Anonymous who did so in support of Wikileaks. These events have sparked a hearty debate as to whether DDoS attacks should be considered “hacking” and whether this digital tactic can be used for legitimate political dissent or simply works to silence speech.

Many claim that DDoS is not technically clever enough to be considered a hack. So, even if DDoS attacks are perhaps not thought of a “hacking,” an important question still remains as to whether this digital tactic can be used as a legitimate form of protest. DDoS attacks have been likened to blockades, direct action, and digital civil disobedience, and in a more critical guise as Internet intimidation, thuggery, and vigilantism with the ability to silence people, groups, organizations and companies from “speaking” on the Internet. These attacks were certainly at some risk of becoming chaotic,
especially since anyone can call the Anonymous moniker into being.

As an anthropologist of hacker and geek politics (and not a lawyer or legal scholar), I cannot provide a definitive legal answer as to whether their actions constitute free speech. What is clear, however, is that hackers and geeks tend to embrace a politics of information freedom in variable ways and have devised fascinating legal, political, and digital tactics by which to broadcast and enact their commitments to information freedom. Since the Internet is home to so many fields of human endeavor, it is clear that it, too, will be site for protest activities.

Follow Gabriella Coleman on Twitter @BiellaColeman

Photo of Biella Coleman: Simon Law CC BY-SA 2.0

Listen to the Command Line podcast with Biella Coleman.