This week in DIGC202 we looked at the darker side of the Internet – the world of hacking, hacktivism and online whistleblowers. This was a really relevant week for my group as the topic is directly related to our research project on the hacktivist group Anonymous.
Wikileaks is an organisation known for releasing sensitive political documents and other content both to traditional media outlets as well as on their website; Khatchadourian (2010) quotes Assange as describing the site as “an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking and public analysis”. The aim of Wikileaks is to expose corruption and injustice through the freedom of information. Benkler (2011, pg 7) notes that whilst Assange, the head of Wikileaks, considers himself a journalist acting in the best interest of the public, the US government views Wikileaks as ‘dangerous to the U.S. military’ as the release of highly classified information makes the nation vulnerable to threat. For a democratic nation, certain information is necessary to keep secret from public knowledge in order to ‘protect legitimate policy’ (Khatchadourian 2010).
I think the main point of the discussion about Wikileaks is about how our networked society may have a negative impact on the system of control that keep our society running, impeding their ability to ensure that press organisations are ‘not only ‘free’ but also ‘responsible’ (Benkler 2011, pg 16). We can argue that the activities headed by Assange are beneficial as they allow the public to be fully aware of what their government is doing, with the defence that the truth is something that should be known by all. The other side of the argument is that there is some information that must be kept confidential as its secrecy is what our national security and protection is reliant upon. The big question is whether Wikileaks does more harm than good – and this is difficult to measure.
Our research project is on the hacktivist group called Anonymous. This group utilises hacking and other forms of technological sabotage as a means of protesting and raising awareness about causes which they feel strongly about. An example of Anonymous actions in Australia is ‘Operation Titstorm’, which consisted of DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks on Australian government websites as a form of protest against ‘forthcoming internet filtering legislation and the perceived censorship in pornography of small-breasted women (who are thought to be under age) and female ejaculation’ (Moses 2010). Operation Titstorm was driven by an ongoing desire of Anonymous to protect Internet freedom, a motivation behind a number of their activities. But is hacktivism such as this morally justified? Himma (2005, pg 14) suggests that this decision must be made on a case-by-case basis as cases of hacktivism ‘vary with respect to morally relevant characteristics’. Some of the factors that Himma suggests are relevant include the amount of harm caused by the actions whether hacktivists are prepared to accept responsibility, whether the political agenda is credible and supported by sufficient reasons, and do hacktivists have a plausible justification for the positions motivating their actions.
I would have to agree that the justifiability of hacktivism must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. We can argue that activities such as ‘Operation Titstorm’ caused little harm to the government department involved, except for their website being down for a short period of time. However, the real impacts of electronic civil disobedience are hard to measure. Assange has in place a ‘harm minimisation policy’ to reduce the impacts on innocent third parties; however, he acknowledges that instances may arise where Wikileaks members may get blood on their hands (Khatchadourian 2010). It is impossible to determine the political impact of the actions of Wikileaks and how many innocent lives may have been lost due to the release of government documents.
How can freedom of speech and freedom of the press be upheld whilst simultaneously punishing those who use technologies to expose issues that they believe are of public importance but potentially putting our security at risk?
Thanks for reading.
Benkler, Y 2011, ‘A free irresponsible press: Wikileaks and the battle over the soul of the networked fourth estate’, accessed 21/9/2012 via http://benkler.org/Benkler_Wikileaks_current.pdf
Himma, K E 2005, ‘Hacking as Politically Motivated Digital Civil Disobedience: Is Hacktivism Morally Justified?’, in Internet Security: Hacking, Counterhacking, And Society, Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2007, accessed 21/9/2012 via http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=799545
Khatchadourian, R 2010, ‘No Secrets’, The New Yorker, June 7, accessed 21/9/2012 via http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/06/07/100607fa_fact_khatchadourian?currentPage=all
Moses, A 2010, ‘Operation Titstorm: hackers bring down government websites’, The Sydney Morning Herald, February 10, accessed 21/9/2012 via http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/operation-titstorm-hackers-bring-down-government-websites-20100210-nqku.html#ixzz27IElctnC
Image sourced from here.