Dave Totten's personal voyage to the land of IT Fluency, and other Digital Governance issues.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Hacktivism review Pt.2

(note: Part one is ABOVE part two)


DeCSS is an excellent example of Lawrence Lessig’s idea of a conflict between “West Coast” and “East Coast” code, as explained to our class by Stu Shulman. While Congress, through the Digital Millennium Act specifically outlawed software that could be used to violate legal copyrights, and courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of the act and prosecutions of violators, the applications still exist. The program has a life of its own can still can be downloaded from underground or offshore sites and used, illegally, in the US. In some countries, such as Russia, it is actually illegal to prevent someone from making a legal copy, so applications such as DeCSS will have a long life cycle in these places. So, which “code” is actually governing people’s behavior?

Samuel recognizes the conflict in espousing the virtues of free access to information while conducting “denial-of-service” (DoS) attacks designed to shut down websites (134). For security professional Barrett Lyon, profiled in the October 10, 2005 issue of The New Yorker, this is his main motivation for protecting websites from attacks, even some of his less savory clients, such as online gambling and pornography.

“The Internet is all about connecting things, communicating and sharing information, bits, pieces of data,” Lyon told reporter Evan Ratliff. “A denial-of-service attack is the exact opposite of that. It is taking one person’s will and imposing it on a bunch of others.”

For Samuel, this conflict relates to freedom of speech. Does hacktivism allow more freedom of speech or less? And how does that affect the goals of deliberative democrats? She notes that the problem is not really one of freedom to speak, but freedom to be heard. Samuel quotes Michael H. Goldhaber’s “TheAttention Economy and the Net”. While blogs may become ubiquitous, the attention of blog readers will remain finite. Pranksters and vandals have an edge competing for this attention. The more that is at stake, the harder people will fight for that attention, using tactics that range from pranks to terrorism.

Samuel seems more positive about the effects of the anonymity displayed by some hacktivists. She says that some of these groups attempt to maintain anonymity to avoid prosecution for illegal activities while others make little or no effort to hide their identities. However, even the crackers who could be prosecuted if they were discovered usually use a pseudonym, taking responsibility for their acts (137). Samuel suggests that the coders and crackers are going beyond simply creating pseudonyms and instead creating “public voices,” new personae that govern their online actions. This idea of a public voice was discussed in class by Peter Muhlberger, who said that being online could change how a person acts. Muhlberger said that a person actually adopts a new personality under these new conditions. This effect must be multiplied when one adopts a pseudonym to conduct illegal activities.

Can the “public sphere” ever truly be a place where equals debate ideas on equal footing? If the stakes are big enough—say, war and peace or property rights—won’t there always be a fringe that is willing to go to any lengths to ensure a positive outcome? Would hacktivists be willing to go as far as Islamist terrorists for their ends? If they could have stopped the Mexican government from putting down the Zapatista rebellion, would some members of the Electronic Disturbance Theater have been willing to die?

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