The Legitimacy of Digital Activism – Fidele Vlavo
When Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in prison last November, his sentencing statement was a lucid and unapologetic account of his political activism and involvement with Anonymous. Hammond described his hack against Stratfor as an act of civil disobedience. Not unlike Thoreau’s seminal call, Hammond explained his disappointment with traditional (and legal) means of protest, declaring that: ‘the hypocrisy of “law and order” and the injustices caused by capitalism cannot be cured by institutional reform but through civil disobedience and direct action’. Sure enough, Hammond was what the judicial system calls ‘a recidivist’ and, having previously spent two years in jail for similar actions, he must have known what to expect during this second trial. However, the unpredictable part was the disproportionate length of his jail sentence and the fact that despite a clear political stand, his hacking practice was not recognised as activism or, for that matter, as civil disobedience.
The problem with Hammond’s case, and with most activists involved in digital activism, is that to this day there has been little attempt to construct a coherent discourse that legitimates hacking and hacktivism. This deficiency is partly due to current scholarship and journalistic stances that thrive on discussing the novelty and unprecedented nature of digital networks and practices. As a result, digital activism is seen as radical, if not revolutionary. This position may seem ideal at first, after all it is a way for activists to draw media attention and public interest, but paradoxically, it also prevents them from building upon the legacies of past activist movements. In the case of online protest little has been said about how these actions are located within historic political and cultural practices. Only few advocates have attempted to defend digital activism as a project which translates civil rights and free speech movements into electronic networks. Yet, on the opposite side, governments and mainstream media are very successful at framing digital activism as cybercriminality and cyberterrorism.
Back in the early 1990s, the activist and artist group Critical Art Ensemble proposed the development of a new form of political dissent based on electronic disturbance. They coined the term ‘electronic civil disobedience’ and argued that since current means of resistance, such as strikes and street demonstrations are no longer effective, political resistance should be relocated in cyberspace. Several activist groups thus framed their resistance practices as electronic civil disobedience, including Electronic Disturbance Theater who supported the Zapatista uprising by organising digital protests, as well as Electrohippies who were digitally active during the alter-globalisation movement of the late 1990s. What is less known is that these activists and artists predicted the challenges that digital activists would face and the rise of power struggles between government, corporation and citizens. Their principal aim was to counter the conflation of online protest and criminality or terrorism as they wrote about the importance of electronic resistance in a society based on information politics.
A consistent historisation of digital activism has to bring these past stories and events to the forefront of current debates to challenge dominant discourses. The velocity of digital media is such that the time needed for critical assessment and informed discussion is forever shrinking, but our endeavour to identify radicalism and originality should not prevent us from recognising patterns. For example, we need to examine how governments, particularly in the US and the UK, have steadily criminalised the access and use of digital networks by producing computer fraud and abuse acts. Over the years, these acts have been regularly amended to counter any form of dissidence. First, they served to crackdown on early computer hackers, then they were used to criminalise denial-of-service protest and now they support the prosecution of activist groups such as Anonymous. In the same vein, the process through which these arrests are made, the role of governmental agents and the use of entrapment techniques, has to become the focus of public debate. Finally, the refusal to distinguish online direct action from criminal acts as well as the disproportionate sentencing of hacktivists tells us that the priority of our governments is to discipline and educate us about how we can and should use digital networks.
What is needed for the survival of digital activism is a systematic deconstruction of these criminalising processes along with the formation of alternative discourses that explain and justify online direct action. Clearly, digital activism is not a homogenous and unanimous project but no activist movement ever was. Online direct action has been qualified as illegal, as slacktivist and a disruption to the free flow of information. However, current revelations regarding major state-funded surveillance programmes indicate that it is time we defend our civil rights against the capitalist interests of governments and media corporations. This includes our right to control our data and our privacy, but also the power to decide how digital networks can and should be utilised. If political hacktivists and whistleblowers are willing to face long-lasting exile and decades of imprisonment to expose the misuse of our technologies and the failure of our judicial systems then the least we can do is to seriously begin asserting our right and duty to disobey.
Fidele Vlavo researches digital culture with a focus on activism and politics, gender and hacking, and art and performance. Her recent work examines online activism, providing discursive frameworks for the analysis of cyberspace as a site for protest. Fidele is currently working on a project retracing the emergence of electronic civil disobedience. She is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London.