Thursday, 27 October 2011

The need to protect hacktivism

I've been pondering a lot (as if this wasn't already evident) on protest. Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights has this to say:
  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
  2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. this article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.
I post the full text so as to make clear I'm not selectively choosing. But the important thing to note here is the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association. Here's my issue, whilst these protections have traditionally been used to as the basis for public protest, no one has truly made the case that these same protections would also apply to hacktivism.

Another definition is really needed at this point, hacktivisim is "the use of computers and computer networks as a means of protest to promote political ends". (Its sad the best definition of this underdiscussed topic is in Wikipedia). However, hacktivism and hacking have become more or less percieved as the same thing, as if defacing a website (hacktivism) is comparable to stealing people's identities off a website (hacking)

Of course its not. In September of this year hackers defaced Syrian Government websites, in January hackers reputed to be part of the Anonymous collective did much the same to Egyptian Government websites, the same has happened in the US, UK, China... lets just say the list goes on and on.

Theres a case to be made that peaceful hacktivism is about the type of protest least likely to have an impact on people's lives. Its like putting up a banner thats hard to get down, and leaving it there. You know eventually someone will pull it down, but lots of people will see it in the interim, and it doesn't hurt anyone.

Of course theres a darker side. Often data is also stolen during the hack. Its hard to break into a website and not have access to more than its graphical layout. Often hackers will take and make use of this access. Witness Anonymous's campaign again Aaron Barr, in which dedicated hackers not only undertook acts of hacktivism, but also destroyed his company and his personal reputation. I've got little sympathy for Barr, he's a man who clearly hates personal privacy and free speech, and he bit off a lot more than he could chew, so that happened.

The problem is that the law has yet to mature enough to recognise that if there should be a distinction drawn between acts of peaceful hacktivism and acts of malicious hacking. People have the freedom to associate, and the freedom to act collectively on their beliefs, the idea that an outdated concept like geography should have any bearing on that association is absolute foolishness. Protests transcend borders, the Arab Spring and Occupy being the two best recent examples. The internet drives this capacity, and there should be an enshrining in law that these networks can be used to peacefully disrupt the person you are protesting against.

The issue ultimately, is that Governments are opposed to protest. That's simple fact. Its disruptive, expensive and ultimately annoying, hence why protests are so severely constrained in this country and most of the Western world. The way in which the right to protest is framed in most cases barely takes into account the idea people can make telephone calls, let alone co-operate with people on the opposite side of the planet to achieve a single end goal.

The reason hacktivism is almost certainly never going to get legal protection, is that its actually an effective form of protest. Standing outside someone's corporate HQ and shouting is more or less a worthless endeavour (most of the time, sometimes it works). However, shut down a company's website and replace it with something that supports your cause, and that could be seen by millions of people.

Its a flaw in our political system, and indeed almost all political systems, that laws are irrelevant within a few years of writing, particularly when it comes to communications, the internet, and technology. But the one area where we could make meaningful progress is the use of technology to inspire and protest freedom of thought, expression and action. Protest is an integral part of that. We should, and must, seek to find ways in which people can protest peacefully online, to continue to criminalise such activity is a sign of a society uncomfortable with the idea that people should be able to act freely, when no harm is caused to another.

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