Hacktivism and How It Got Here
Michelle Delio 07.14.04
NEW YORK — Hacktivism isn’t found in the graffiti on defaced Web pages, in e-mail viruses bearing political screeds or in smug take-downs of government or organizational networks.
These sorts of activities are nothing more than reverse censorship and “the same old cheap hacks elevated to political protest,” according to Cult of the Dead Cow member Oxblood Ruffin.
Hacktivism, as defined by the Cult of the Dead Cow, the group of hackers and artists who coined the phrase, was intended to refer to the development and use of technology to foster human rights and the open exchange of information.
Speaking this past weekend at the Hackers on Planet Earth gathering, Ruffin pointed to the growing partnership against censorship between hackers, human rights activists and the academic community as proof that real hacktivism — grass-roots resistance enabled by technology — is a viable way to battle repression.
The general idea of hacktivism was first articulated by John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in his 1996 “Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace.”
But no one called technology-enabled political activism “hacktivism” until 1998, when cDc members Omega, Reid Fleming and Ruffin were chatting online and were, Ruffin said, “bouncing some wacky ideas around about hacking and political liberation, mostly in the context of working with Chinese hackers post-Tiananmen Square.”
“The next morning Omega sent an e-mail to the cDc listserv and included for the first time the word hacktivism in the post,” Ruffin said. “Like most cDc inventions, it was used seriously and ironically at the same time — and when I saw it my head almost exploded.”
Professor Ronald Deibert from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which sponsors and develops technology used by activists, said he can’t recall when he first heard the term hacktivism, but said he immediately began using it to describe his work at the Citizen Lab, which he describes as a “hacker grow-op.”
“The combination of hacking in the traditional sense of the term — not accepting technologies at face value, opening them up, understanding how they work beneath the surface, and exploring the limits and constraints they impose on human communications — and social and political activism is a potent combination and precisely the recipe I advocate to students and use to guide my own research activities,” said Deibert.
Deibert said real hacktivism is fast becoming understood and accepted by more mainstream human rights activists and is now being supported by large foundations like the Soros Foundation, Markle Foundation and Ford Foundation, which fund groups such as Privaterra, eRiders and Indymedia, which use technology to defend civil rights.
But that’s not to say that hacktivism has to be somber, serious and all grown-up to be effective.
“The cDc has developed a reputation for its unique combination of irreverence, ingenuity and ethics,” Deibert said. “Sure, there are many hackers out there who have stuck it to the authorities with their killer toolz, but cDc does so while armed with Article 19 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. That’s unique.”
Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “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.”
Hacktivismo, an autonomous cDc group formed to support hacktivism and develop tools that can be used by hacktivists, uses Article 19 as the centerpiece of its statement of purpose.
The group has developed tools that enable people to access and share information that their government doesn’t approve of.
Patrick Ball, director of human rights programs at Benetech, a non-profit organization that uses technology to address pressing social problems, said he first heard about hacktivism on mailing lists in spring 2001.
“I thought it was a very interesting idea — especially the part about finding technical workarounds to bad government policies. (It) was not a new idea, but these guys (cDc) were going to build actual software instead of blowing blue-sky smoke.”
Ball spoke about hacktivism at hacker conference Defcon in the summer of 2001, and during his talk made a disparaging comment about Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Serbia and of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Ball later testified against Milosevic at Milosevic’s war crimes trial in the Hague. When Milosevic cross-examined Ball, one of the first questions he asked him was “Who is this Dead Cow Cult?”
“My under-oath spin to Slobo was that hacktivism is an opportunity for engaged young programmers to do cool and socially beneficial stuff with their technical skill and curiosity — instead of getting in trouble,” said Ball. “And I actually believe that.”
The cDc, which celebrated its 20th anniversary at HOPE, was founded in July 1984 in Lubbock, Texas, by Grandmaster Ratte and Franken Gibe, “who used to hang out in an abandoned abattoir and talk computers and art and world domination,” Ruffin said.
“G-Ratte ran a bunch of (bulletin boards) that attracted pretty much the cream of the hacking community from the mid-’80s. That situation has maintained itself to date. We’ve always been the most popular girls at the prom.”
Lately the cDc has been quietly building relationships with grass-roots and traditional human rights groups, Ruffin said. And in addition to their hacktivism activities, cDc also publishes an online magazine.
“Almost no one knows that the longest running e-zine on the Net is the cDc text-file collection. The files are nuts and go everywhere from ‘Sex with Satan’ to really serious stuff,” said Ruffin, who recently contributed a text file on hacktivism to the collection.
“But the overall message is ‘Go out there and do it and be yourself.’ Be daring. That’s what the t-files and hacktivism are all about.”