Hacktivism and Pirate Culture: Revisited

One of the prevailing themes I heard in class on Wednesday was an overtone of cynicism about Anonymous and other, similar “hacktivist” groups. In ways, I also think that some of that cynicism is justified. Their activities in the West are frequently related to self-oriented objectives such as the right to free access to entertainment seen in the Pirate Bay and Megaupload activities. We also heard a lot of complaints about their methods, such as their disclosure of private information about innocent students as a form of “protest” against the student aid system in the Team Ghost Shell case.

 

Personally I feel like a lot of the emergent cynicism we heard in class the other day is justified.  Hacktivist entities or “collectives” can represent a lot of power concentrated into the hands of (for lack of a better word) anonymous agents who in general can’t be held accountable for their activities.  It’s not so much that the groups are bad, but simply that they are phenomenally powerful and completely unaccountable to anyone.

Intriguingly, though, after class (and feeling pretty justified in my suspicion) I happened to be on CNN.com where I encountered a photo expose on the ongoing protests in Cairo, Egypt.  In particular, secularist and anti-Muslim Brotherhood activists are protesting against the policies of elected President Morsi (a member of the Muslim Brotherhood).  Conversely, pro-Morsi activists have also taken to the streets, and unfortunately the situation is quickly devolving into violence. If you’d like to learn more, the full story can be found here.

Halfway through the story, I found this image:

A young man, clearly in the throes of extreme pain being evacuated by comrades on the streets of Cairo, clutching a Guy Fawkes mask…

While on the one hand, I don’t necessarily agree with the ideologies or the methods of Anonymous and other, similar group, I can’t help but feel that perhaps the effects of these hacktivist groups is perhaps greater than the sum of their parts.  It’s easy to be cynical about a group who hacks to protect their “right” to copyright violation, or who dump information about hapless students all over the internet.  At the same time, though, this image suggests the empowerment that the idea of groups like Anonymous can have for the subaltern, for the previously disenfranchised.  This young man isn’t engaged in hacking, nor are his objectives necessarily aligned with those of Anonymous.  At the same time, though, the imagery and the symbolism of the group and its signature Guy Fawkes mask may be the source of one man’s courage to take to the streets of Cairo to protest what he perceives as unjust governmental policy…

Truthfully, I still can’t help but feel somewhat cynical about groups such as Anonymous.  At the same time, though, to dismiss them based on their activities here, and to ignore their role as symbolically empowering voices of dissent around the world is to over-simplify the story and to neglect a hidden power in hacktivism around the world.

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