Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hacktivism: Civil disobedience or guerrilla warfare?

There was a cheeky pleasure to watching the hacktivists bring down Mastercard, Visa and the Swiss Bank in retaliation to Assange’s arrest and freezing of Wikileaks’ accounts and servers. For I think that the strategy the governments’ around the world have collectively come up with to tackle the Assange problem is sneaky and underhand.

Assange opened up a big question about transparency before world democracies. And how did the best minds of our times respond? Instead of arresting and trying him for the crime they claimed he had committed – theft and release of US diplomatic cables – they are trying to shut him by implicating him in a sex scandal and by attacking his finances and infrastructure. On no, I may not agree with what Assange did, but I am certainly don’t approve of what the governments are doing in retaliation.

But how exactly should we characterise the actions of these anonymous, amorphous group of people revolting against their own institutions? After all, the majority of hackers who are downloading the hacking programme are Americans and Europeans, whose governments are trying to censor Wikileaks.

Lokulin, in a comment to a previous post, suggested that what we are witnessing is a mass civil disobedience movement on the lines of the civil rights movement and Indian independence movement. Essentially, the hacktivists are regular citizens showing their displeasure against the establishment by bringing down the social and civil systems that the establishment depends on to run society efficiently – our credit cards, paypals, twitter accounts etc.

We can draw an analogy between hacktivists and say, Gandhi and his civil disobedience movement. Essentially, the rulers need the co-operation of ruled in order to function effectively. But if the ruled stopped co-operating – follow the rules and the laws set before them – then no government can function. That is how Gandhi fought the British colonial government: by encouraging people to openly but non-violently defy the British government. And his philosophy inspired other political leaders such as Mandela and Martin Luther King. That is what the hacktivists are doing too – they are defying and challenging the institutions that run our societies.

But then again, an important aspect of civil disobedience movement was its openness. Its moral supremacy arose from the fact that people defying the governments did is openly and publicly and were ready to face the consequences of their actions. In fact, Gandhi and Mandela both spent a goodish part of their lives in jail. But the calm and patience with which they accepted the punishment is what gave them moral authority, convinced others of their stand, and inspired others to follow them.

There is no such openness to the hacktivists. They attack anonymously. We don’t know who they are, and we only have a vague notion of what is driving them. Revenge comes across as their most important motivation as they are only specifically attacking the institutions that cut their connection with Wikileaks. They are not trying to inspire any larger debate or build a following or convince people of their stand. All they are doing is threatening institutions that break ties with Wikileaks with revenge. And how strong their convictions are, and how much they are ready to sacrifice for it – we don’t know yet.

In that sense, they are closer to guerrilla warriors than Gandhi or Mandela.

Does it matter? I don’t know. But somehow I prefer the moral certitude of the likes of Gandhi, Mandela and King than the ambiguity of PLO and Hamas. It took time for the former to win their wars but they left us in doubt about results they achieved.


jaimit said...

So far I have been an Assange sympathiser and I might be inclined to call him a ‘non violent’ protestor. But I don’t believe that the hacktivists are anywhere close to the Gandhian ideal. It is a violent protest, no two ways about it.
I do not really believe in the efficacy of the hacktivist style protests. Freedom fighters who use violence are termed terrorists and lose the power of public opinion. The hacktivists risk such back lash.
I might be misguided but this reminds me of the Chauri Chaura incident. (
Hence while I understand their cause I might never be able to see the value of their method

globalbabble said...

Violent? That's a bit extreme - they are causing inconvenience and loss of income. How is that different froma strike?

jaimit said...

a strike is your own employees protesting. they did not create loss of income by peacefull picketing outside the stores, urginig people not to get in.
they blocked sites and stopped transactions.
i dont see it as any different from a right wing organisation getting into your shop and breaking and tearing the shop apart. it is as violent as virtual life can get.
i can understand boycott and social awareness but 'operation payback' as it was called disrupted sites.
the fighters to mu mind, quickly became the same as their enemy. they relied instantly on brute force.

globalbabble said...

Hmmm... so they were vandalising. Yes, I guess they were. And they attacked as a mob without identifying themselves - that is sneaky as well.