'Audacious' Hactivists Make Social Statement, Scholar Says

Anonymous hackers straddle the roles of prankster and protester, a Harvard researcher writes.

A stirring defense of the hacktivist collective Anonymous was posted this week to the website for the prestigious magazine Foreign Affairs by Yochai Benkler, faculty co-director for the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Benkler's article appears to be a reaction to heated rhetoric by U.S. government officials that Anonymous is a threat to national security --- if not now, then in the near future, when worst-case scenario painters expect the movement to gain access to tools for attacking the A nation's infrastructure, including the electrical grid.

"Seeing Anonymous primarily as a cybersecurity threat is like analyzing the breadth of the antiwar movement and 1960s counterculture by focusing only on the Weathermen," Benkler writes.

"Just as the antiwar movement had its bomb-throwing radicals, online hacktivists organizing under the banner of Anonymous sometimes cross the boundaries of legitimate protest," he notes. "But a fearful overreaction to Anonymous poses a greater threat to freedom of expression, creativity, and innovation than any threat posed by the disruptions themselves."

Anonymous's actions present society with a challenge about who should set the boundaries of legitimate protest, argues the Harvard Law School professor of entrepreneurial studies. Civil disobedience plays a part in social change, as does protest that is disruptive enough to "rouse people from complacence."

In the past, when a hacktivist element got out of line, there were "adults" in the room to establish the kind of boundaries referred to by Benkler. In 1998, for example, when a group called the Legions of Underground threatened to disrupt the Internet access of China and Iran in protest of human rights abuses in those nations, the hacktivist community -- which included groups such as Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc), L0pht, Chaos Computer Club in Germany, and hacker mags 2600 and Phrack -- condemned that action, and the Legion backed off the attack.

Hacktivists Need Maturity

That kind of adult supervision is lacking in the hacktivist scene today, a development that some old line hacktivists have condemned. "Anonymous is fighting for free speech on the Internet, but it's hard to support that when you're DoS-ing and not allowing people to talk," Oxblood Ruffin, former cDc chief evangelist for hacktivism told Cnet in a recent interview. A

"How is that consistent?" Ruffin asks. "They remind me of awkward teenagers. I think they're trying to do the right thing, but they're stumbling around and doing some really stupid sh**."

Benkler asserts that the actions of Anonymous, awkward or stupid as they may sometimes be, should be accommodated, for the most part, not punished. Suppressing their actions could dampen valid messages, he suggests.

"At their worst, Anonymous' practices range from unpleasant pranksterism to nasty hooliganism; they are not part of a vast criminal or cyberterrorist conspiracy," Benkler maintains. "Instead, Anonymous plays the role of the audacious provocateur, straddling the boundaries between destructive, disruptive, and instructive."

He describes the hackers as "some of the most energetic and wired segments of society," who have helped develop the Internet. "Any society that commits itself to eliminating what makes Anonymous possible and powerful risks losing the openness and uncertainty that have made the Internet home to so much innovation, expression, and creativity."

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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