Virtual Community – Hacktivists & Hacktivism

Research and critically analyse an extant, and ideally vibrant, virtual community in terms of one key “cyberculture theme” of your choice.


Hacktivists, it has been argued, are individuals who redeploy and repurpose technology for social causes. In this sense they are different from “garden-variety hackers” out to enrich only themselves. People like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates began their careers as hackers — they repurposed technology, but without any particular political agenda. In the case of Jobs and Wozniak, they built and sold “blue boxes,” devices that allowed users to defraud the phone company. Though these people today are establishment heroes, and the contrast between their almost exalted state and the scorn being laid upon hacktivists is instructive. The term hacktivism has been defined as the nonviolent use for political ends of “illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools”. These include website defacements, information theft, website parodies, DoS attacks, virtual sit-ins, and virtual sabotage. (Mitchell, 2004.) Capitalizing on the power and pervasive-ness of the Internet, hacktivists attempt to exploit its manifold access points to gain publicity and also to spread information about their views. (Denning, 2001)

                                                                      Hacktivists as a virtual online community have changed the way the internet works for years and years. Although it has not always carried this name, people have turned to hacktivism since the Internet’s early days. (Arquilla, 2001) An example of which was the protesting of the passage of the Communications Decency Act in the United States in 1996 when a hacker defaced the website of the Department of Justice with images and commentary: “Free speech in the land of the free? Arms in the home of the brave? Privacy in a state of wiretaps and government intrusion? Unreasonable searches? We are a little behind our 1984 deadline, but working slowly one amendment at a time. It is hard to trick hundreds of millions of people out of their freedoms, but we should be complete within a decade.” As the Internet has advanced, so too have the tools used by hacktivists to pursue their ideological aims; additionally, an individual’s objective and point of view will likely determine his form of hacktivism. (Taylor, 2005)

It would appear that governments, in particular the US government, consider hackers or “black-hat hackers” less of a threat than those who are trying to make a political or social point (white-hat hackers) (Hurley, 2015). An example of such is the case of Andrew Auernheimer aka “Weev.” In 2010, Weev discovered that AT&T had left private information about its customers vulnerable on the Internet, he and a colleague wrote a simple script to access it. Theoretically, he did not “hack” anything he merely executed a simple version of what Google Web crawlers do every second of every day — chronologically walk through public URLs and extract the content. When Weev got the information (the e-mail addresses of 114,000 iPad users, (including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the White House chief of staff), he did not try to profit from it; he notified the blog Gawker of the security hole.

After WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents in 2010, the ensuing cyber-attacks waged by all sides in the controversy brought the phenomenon of hacktivism into popular focus. Applicable law in most developed countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, generally prohibits hacktivism. However, these countries also protect the right to protest as an essential element of free speech. One could argue that there are many forms of hacktivism that are primarily expressive, that do not cause serious damage, and that do not exploit illegal access to networks or computers. Scholars have outlined that hacktivism sufficiently resembles traditional forms of protest and therefore this warrants protection from the application of anti-hacking laws under widely accepted principles of free speech. (Denning, 2001)

The controversy surrounding WikiLeaks, however, was only beginning. Soon, major companies that provided services to WikiLeaks and its users began withdrawing support. Citing violations of its “Acceptable Use Policy”, PayPal cancelled WikiLeaks’ account, preventing WikiLeaks from accepted donations through the popular online payment service. Subsequently, MasterCard and Visa suspended cardholder payments to WikiLeaks. Swiss bank PostFinance closed the account of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, claiming that Assange provided false information concerning his place of residence. (Ragan, 2010) Bank of America, citing concerns that WikiLeaks “may be engaged in activities that are, among other things, inconsistent with our internal policies,” similarly pulled the plug, refusing to process payments to WikiLeaks. (Satter, 2010) In turn there was huge online backlash as a result of these corporate announcements. An equivocal, international group of individuals, known as Anonymousbegan to bombard the websites of bodies it deemed opposed to WikiLeaks with distributed DDoS attacks. Many of the sites crashed, and others were rendered inoperable for some time. (Bar-Yosef, 2010) Paypal, one of the community’s victims, lost £3.5 million as a result of their attacks. The group’s declared mission, calledOperation Payback, was to raise awareness of the actions of WikiLeaks’ opponents, to fight what it perceived to be censorship by identifying and attacking those responsible for the attacks on WikiLeaks and to support “those who are helping lead our world to freedom and democracy.” (Correll, 2010)

The conflict surrounding the WikiLeaks controversy to many people was the first real example of a war over digital information. (Satter, 2010) John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, announced on Twitter that “the first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops.” (Satter, 2010) To others, including members of Anonymous, Operation Payback is the most prominent recent example of a trend that has been developing since the invention of the Internet. One sees an increase in computer savvy people deploying their skills online to protest for or against a cause—or, more simply, hacktivism. The community of hacktivists is one that is constantly growing and innovating itself. Like many aspects of Internet activity, hacktivism is transnational in scope due to the fact that any effective legal response should include international coordination that draws on widely accepted democratic principles of free speech. (Rubenkind, 2010)

Like many aspects of Internet activity, hacktivism is transnational in scope; as a result, any effective legal response should include international coordination that draws on widely accepted democratic principles of free speech. (Jordan, 2004) As a community, Anonymous has been the most prolific targeting not only corporations but in recent times they have begun targeting public figures an example of which is in early 2015 they created a video aimed at hip hop artist Kanye West. (Williams, 2015) Personally I find hacktivism excellent as it allows the public to be fully informed on various political and social matters. In the case of Anonymous’ DDoS attacks, the British government were quick to react, arresting at least five members of Anonymous. (Halliday, 2011) One must ask, is hacktivism expressive? And if so should hacktivists be eligible for protection as a form of legitimate protest? Certain forms of hacktivism (specifically, virtual sit-ins and voluntary DDoS attacks) narrowly resemble traditionally accepted forms of protest such as physical sit-ins and picket lines. Though this is not justification for hacktivism’s expressive nature and should not be sufficient to guarantee immunity. However, like certain forms of peaceful demonstration that have, in the past, received reasonable protection, so too should acts of hacktivism that are principally expressive. In short, perhaps they should receive protection.

As demonstrated by Anonymous in the context of the WikiLeaks controversy, hacktivism is increasingly becoming a popular form of protest against perceived injustice. The community of hacktivists online are increasing in strength. (Leyden, 2010) I believe that hacktivism is extremely important as a legitimate form of protest. (Jordan, 2004) Furthermore, the potential for hacktivism as a multinational tool of protest justifies the peripheral burden it imposes in its permitted forms. Although most current systems of hacktivism are rightly regulated or prohibited outright, a narrow subset of hacktivism should be protected on the grounds that it is primarily expressive and causes no significant damage.



Arquilla, J. a. (2001). Emergence and Influence of the Zapatista Social Netwar – Networks and Netwars. Washington: Rand Corporation.

Bar-Yosef, N. (2010). How Operation Payback and Hacktivism Are Rocking the ’Net.Security Week, 9.

Correll, S.-P. (2010, December). Operation: Payback Broadens to “Operation Avenge Assange”. Retrieved May 21, 2015, from Panda Security :

Denning, D. E. (2001). Activism, Hacktivism, and Cyberterrorism: The Internet as a Tool for Influencing Foreign Policy. Washington: Rand Corporation.

Halliday, J. (2011, January 27). Police arrest five over Anonymous WikiLeaks attacks.Retrieved May 26, 2015, from The Guardian:

Hurley, O. (2015, March 08). Hackers – friends or foes? . Retrieved May 25, 2015, from Cybercultures – Blog:

Jordan, T. a. (2004). Hacktivism and Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause? . New York: Routledge Publishing.

Leyden, J. (2010, December 10). Anonymous Hacktivists Fire Ion Cannons at Zimbabwe.Retrieved May 28, 2015, from Register:

Mitchell, W. (2004.). Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Ragan, S. (2010). Recap: WikiLeaks Faces More Heat in the Wake of Cablegate. TECH Herald, 20.

Rubenkind, N. J. (2010, December). WikiLeaks Attack: Not the First by th3j35t3r.Retrieved May 21, 2015, from PCMAG:,2817,2373559,00.asp.

Satter, R. G. (2010, December 03). WikiLeaks Fights to Stay Online amid Attacks.Retrieved May 23, 2015, from Business Week:

Taylor, P. A. (2005). From Hackers to Hacktivists: Speed Bumps on the Global Superhighway? New Media & Society , 625-646.

Williams, W. (2015, March). Anonymous hackers issue ominous warning to Kanye West.Retrieved May 23, 2015, from IT Proportal :


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