The Real World

The Real World

by metac0m

Cyberspace is often perceived as a digital realm unto its own and at best a distant extension of reality. From this perspective we have come to perceive of the Internet as aloof from the "real" world. We recognise the capabilities of this medium, particularly with regard to organisation of networks of activists but we also recognise that the medium itself is mechanism of activism.

In this sense we distinguish hacktivism and activism; electronic and civil disobedience. Additionally, we recognise that the medium itself - the Internet - must be kept as Oxblood Ruffin explains "healthy, vibrant, open, and above all free [as in expression]." Whether for purposes of activism, hacktivism, electronic, or civil disobedience the Internet has emerged as an essential technology. This is the inherent commonality. Regardless of the divisions we, as users, have a vested interest in maintain the health of this medium.

As mentioned, the ethereal status imposed on the Internet often blurs its direct link with the real world. In this sense, a striking division has been made between electronic and "real" world activism. The resulting antagonism, in which the "real" is pitted against the "cyber", is a source of constructive debate but is also based on over-generalisations. Granted, for academic or debate/discussion purposes generalisations are necessary to organise one’s thoughts into an effective argument but in this process we’ve lost sight of an important factor: evolution. Hacktivism is a continually evolving and open process; the tactics and methodology are not static. We’ve become accustomed to assuming that hacktivism is synonymous with webpage defacement and that electronic civil disobedience (ECD) is an automated denial of service attack based on the repetitive refreshing of the browser. Additionally, participation in such activities is seen as being removed from the "real" world and despite significant media attention is ineffective.

While recognising the criticism as just and acknowledging the dichotomies within the hacktivist paradigm there needs to mention of the considerable cross-over occurring between those concerned with the cyber health of the Internet and those concerned with social, political, and economic realities for they both affect this medium that binds us together. There are "real world" consequences to electronic activism.

In November 1999 the Content Scrambling System (CSS) used to encrypt Digital Versatile Discs (DVD) was cracked by anonymous German hackers. Although credit is usually given to Jon Johansen he was actually involved with the creation of DeCSS, a program that decrypts a CSS encrypted DVD and allows the contents to be copied to a computer harddisk.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has been involved in a battle to stop the proliferation of DeCSS, particularly against 2600 Magazine which has been "publishing controversial material since 1984." 2600 was successfully sued by the MPAA for providing access to DeCSS. Furthermore, 2600 Magazine (and anyone else) is now prevented from linking to any webpage that posts the DeCSS source code. Judge Kaplan ruled that the argument that computer code was "free speech" was baseless and that " computer code is not purely expressive any more than the assassination of a political figure is purely a political statement." An appeal has been launched by 2600 and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and eight groups including the Association for Computing Machinery, leading cryptographers, and a coalition of journalist organizations including the Online News Association and the Newspaper Association of America have called for the decision to be overturned.

Of particular note is the judge’s reference to electronic civil disobedience regarding the linking to and distribution of DeCSS. It is reminiscent of what Oxblood once said, "It could involve one programmer writing code that might have significant impact on the entire Internet." Here we have one program that has brought to the forefront numerous issues facing the Internet community including free speech, fair use, reverse engineering, encryption, and freedom of information. In his reaction to the ruling Emmanuel Goldstein of 2600 states:

I won't even get into how the net is being destroyed by advertising and conglomeration. There's no time to go on the offensive when so much time has to be spent defending one's very existence. Every day we get new reports of people being threatened in some way by some huge corporate entity because their opinions and free expression don't sit well. Years ago, this sort of thing would have been laughed at. Today, it's a very different story. Voices are being silenced, criticism is being eliminated. And very unfortunate precedents are being set.

Furthermore, there is a human, "real world" cost to pay. Goldstein likens being dragged through a lengthy and costly court process to "facing a major illness." In this case, the repercussions of ECD have seriously affected the "real" lives of individuals. This was not some abstract form of electronic protest but a serious challenge to the legal system of the United States for which the ECD participants were willing to face the penalty. It was not removed or anonymous and has promoted solidarity rather than division. 2600 is taking a stand for all users of this medium who benefit from the free access to information, freedom of speech, and freedom of communication be they activist or hacktivist. This is the Real world.

Another case, described by 2600 Magazine as "another example of the parallels between the hacker world and the real world" is the case of 2600 layout artist Shapeshifter, one of the 400 protesters arrested at the Republican National Convention last August. Shapeshifter was accused of using his cell phone as "an instrument of crime", a charge that was eventually dropped. However, Shapeshifter was "held in prison for a week on half a million dollars bail" and was eventually found guilty of "disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway" in relation to the protest, receiving a fine of $135.50 and three months probation.

What is of particular note in this case is the hacker/activist crossover. Taking a activist approach Shapeshifter is quoted as saying:

(We) are challenging the whole electoral process, both Republicans and Democrats, the way the system works and doesn't represent people but corporations...

Indeed, the electronic world in which hackers exist is affected by the existing social, economic, and political reality on the ground. Apart from political critiques of democracy, hackers and activists have a vested interest in keeping the Internet a free and healthy environment to facilitate the open exchange of ideas. The Internet has become essential to both the hacker and activist communities. Activists rely on it for organisation, communication and dissemination of information while hackers, on the other hand, also require an "emancipated" Internet environment in which to exist. The issues of freedom of speech, information and exchange of ideas, the lines along which hackers and activists converge, are captured beautifully in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Thus electronic struggle is not a removed event. It has "real world" consequences. These consequences force us to acknowledge that the Internet does not exist entirely separate from existing national and international structures and conditions. Thus the fusion of hackers and activists is a logical conclusion. With an ever-increasing range of common goals along with the diffusion of hacker computer skills the two diverse groups are being drawn closer together. In relation to the RNC protests Wired reported that:

Other hackers, including at least two other contributors to 2600, descended on the convention last week. Some helped the Philadelphia Independent Media Center, a left-leaning collective of journalists and activists, monitor police radio frequencies.

Hacktivism is a powerful yet still emerging phenomenon, "a noun in search of a verb" as Oxblood suggests. The theory and methodology is being debated and created. The outcome remains to be seen but it will surely have a definite effect on the "real world".

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This article comes from The Hacktivist