Hacktivism and Pirate Culture: Where do these labels come from?

The role of “hacktivism,” or the use of internet facilitated means for driving social discourse in a certain direction on a selected protest topic, is a controversial one. By controversial, I don’t merely mean the illegal means utilized by online hacktivists in pursuit of their objectives, but also in the way these methods are perceived and interpreted by their non-activist peers.  Although “hacktivism” certainly makes for a thrilling label, it’s efficacy in achieving objectives has been ambiguous at best.

In 2011, for instance, the hacktivist community of “Anonymous” hacked into the corporate servers of the  Sony Corporations’ “Playstation” videogame division to protest the prosecution of a fellow hacker who went by the handle of GeoHot (George Hotz).  GeoHot had posted videoclips teaching individuals how to hack their Playstation consoles to play illegally downloaded videogame content. Perceiving the prosecution to be a violation of GeoHot’s rights to free-speech,  Anonymous counter-attacked by hacking Sony’s corporate servers.

The story of Anonymous’ attack on Sony exposes several of the flaws in the “hacktivist” model, as well as several shortcomings in the study we read this week by Lindgren & Lundstrom.

It should first be pointed out that while Lindgren & Lundstrom limited their analysis to Twitter activity, Twitter has been negligibly (to be generous) used by actual hacktivist communities.  Anonymous, for example, does most of their strategizing on the message board, 4Chan (link is safe, boards are wildly NSFW, for a safer look at the process, try here).  Long-story short, while Twitter may work for lighter forms of social media protest,  more extreme forms of “hacktivism” are too blatantly illegal to use such exposed means of communications, forcing groups such as Anonymous & LULZSEC to use more backchannel avenues.

The Anonymous-Sony narrative also exposes the ambiguity of control of many “hacktivist” collectives. Ironically, the second article we read for this week by Rattay is a little behind the times.  In particular, while the attacks against Sony were positioned as activism, they also took the time to steal the credit card information of Sony network users. Indeed, even in the midst of the crisis, considerable debate raged among individuals claiming to “represent” Anonymous (such as Barrett Brown in this weeks’ readings). Some claimed that Anonymous HAD hacked the network, and others insisted that it hadn’t.

Most significantly, when Anonymous took down the PlayStation network, it accidentally drew up battle-lines in the controversy regarding GeoHot.  In particular, when the network crashed (let alone when the credit card data was stolen), it positioned both Sony and its users as mutual victims of Anonymous, thus, accidentally pushing the PlayStation Network users to perceive themselves as similar to Sony as they were both victims of the Hack.  This perception actually drove many users to more vociferously support Sony and to criticize “Anonymous” rather than to driving them to support the hacktivists.

Taken collectively, stories such as Anonymous’ attempt to take down Sony suggest that hacktivism may not be as effective as it perceives itself to be.

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5 thoughts on “Hacktivism and Pirate Culture: Where do these labels come from?

  1. Serumun Ubwa says:

    You see, it is cases like these that make me further ponder on whether this whole hacktivism thing is even a positive thing at all. Why is it okay to fight for someone who is teaching others how to hack their play stations to play illegally downloaded content? I don’t think that’s okay, and very interestingly with how this played out, neither did the play station users themselves. That fight is not one for free-speech. It’s one for the benefits that come with being able to illegally download content. And i think this is where my antennas go up, because people who don’t understand what is actually being fought for support these movements.
    I don’t play video games, but have I benefited from the use of illegally downloaded content in my life? Yes, I have, because I didn’t have to pay for it. Would I go out and fight for “free-speech” that allows people to spread the gospel of illegally downloaded content? Probably not; because there are actually people who need that content to be sold to make a living. That’s why downloading it is “illegal” in the first place, right?
    So Just like Prof. McAdams said in class, it is more than important to understand the real reason for the fight and not just what you’re told.
    That being said, I definitely agree that hacktivism may not be as effective as it may seem to be, and i would like to add that it may not be as positive as it may seem to be either. I’m still trying to digest it all.

  2. xiluommc says:

    I do agree with you that what Anonymous did to Sony PlayStation inflamed
    both Sony and those law-abiding Sony video game players. In all the time, the members of Anonymous projected themselves as the protectors or defenders of internet freedom and right of free speech. However, in this case, I really doubt about that. Because hey seems to love the “freedom” with a sort of fierce egoism, not out of justice. One of the weak points of loosely associated hacktivist groups is exposed here is that they lack of necessary principle or regulation to restrict their collective actions. Thus, in some cases, the hackivists actually harm the benefits of majority rather than protect them.

    In the case of Anonymous-Sony, it is obvious that Anonymous did not stay in the right side of the law cause it supported a hacker who had already infringe the law of copyright. And I personally do not expect any positive outcome in this eye for eye and tooth for tooth revenge revenge, to say the least of it.

  3. The thing about hacktivism, to me, is that it toes an even-closer line with criminal activity to the point that it really creates bad PR. Activists in general can sometimes not have the best PR in the world — with peaceful activists looking good, but those who dare do anything looking bad. And it’s a perception I think I can deal with.

    To me, the issues becomes when those like Anon steal credit card information. Maybe it wasn’t all of Anon, as a matter of fact most would probably be upset about it. But when a handful of thousands of people do something like steal identities and money, it makes the whole thing look like a hoard of bandits.

  4. Great post, Jon. Well done! I’m glad to see a case that represents (what I see as) a typical kind of hacker attack, to wit, “You arrested one of our boyz, now we’re gonna get you back!” Such a stunt steals credibility away from their more civic-minded attacks.

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