Digital Disobedience
How to piss off The Man online

Virtual sit-ins. Online anti-propaganda. Internet blockades. Bogus Web sites. Even digital marches. What's all this -- picketing in cyberspace? As a matter of fiberoptica, yes. These are the buzzwords that define the burgeoning phenom known as "hacktivism."

See also...
... by Shermakaye Bass
... in the Scope section
... from September 7, 1999

Hacktivists are not to be confused with traditional hackers, who use their programming wiles for electronic breaking-and-entering or pure ego gratification. Instead, they're the agitators behind groups like Electronic Disturbance Theater, The Cult of the Dead Cow and RTMark in the U.S.; London's Mongrel/National Heritage project; Italy's Anonymous Digital Coalition; and Hong Kong's Yellow Pages. These electronic guerilla groups are turning the tables on the world's most insidious predators -- namely, big business and big government.

Increasingly a force to be reckoned with, these cybercrusaders blend tech-knowledge with a knack for parody and a passion for social, political and economic comeuppance. They use their talents for writing and intercepting "code" to stage acts of electronic civil disobedience and disrupt the language of control.

Best known these days for hijacking the URLs the George W. Bush campaign hadn't even thought about wanting yet, RTMark has consistently panned global gluttons in the entertainment and fast food industries by spoofing their products and logos. Earlier this year, in fact, the group's reverse-spin doctorsunveiled a faux McDonald's Web site, which appears to every 10th visitor to RTMark's home page.

Meanwhile, Mongrel's Natural Selection mission is to undermine bigotry as a societal norm. It seems like just a meta search engine until you feed it one of 5,000 racial slurs; then it dumps you into hacked versions of bigot sites with Java scripts that won't leave you alone. "It is the nightmare the whites-only Internet has been waiting for," Mongrel claims.

But the main target of hacktivism is government repression. EDT, the Anonymous Digital Coalition and the Yellow Pages have orchestrated protests against the ruling powers -- both economic and government powers -- in countries like Mexico, the People's Republic of China, Indonesia, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.

The EDT has focused much of its hacktivist energy on the Zapatista rebellion. They urged the "swarming" of specific Web sites last year in protest against the Mexican government and the Pentagon (which indirectly supports Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo's anti-Zapatista war). By getting supporters to activate the group's specially-designed "FloodNet" applet, EDT created virtual sit-ins. Once activated, FloodNet kicked in an automatic reload function that allowed the user to hit the targeted site every five to seven seconds -- thus creating a virtual blockade.

"It's basically a loop," says EDT hacktivist Stefan Wray. "It's as if somebody is sitting there, physically, with their mouse, hitting the reload on the browser, and when enough of those [requests] are sent, access to the site is blocked or limited."

Wray is increasingly interested in what he calls hybridity. He says the ideal form of postmodern activism is to coordinate the street protests with online protests, as EDT did this past June, during the G8 meeting in Germany, with a "Reclaim the Streets" event. In that consolidated act, RTS demonstrations were held all over the world (10,000 people reportedly gathered in Nigeria), while computer users were encouraged to simultaneously protest Zapatista oppression via EDT's FloodNet.

During the six-hour cyberassault, FloodNet received more than 18,615 "requests" from 46 different countries -- each request activating the program's automatic reload command, which, in Net-security lingo, constitutes a "denial of service attack." The digital desperados all but completely blocked that day's target Web site -- that of the Mexican Ambassador to the United Kingdom -- and achieved their ideological goal of fostering solidarity and demonstrating the power of Internet protest.

Obviously, this sort of tactic goes far beyond the physical possibilities of in-the-flesh protest -- with the exception of demos on the scale of Tiananmen Square or the Million Man March. That's because hacktivism hits the Big Daddies where they're most vulnerable: the electronic flap on the seat of their pants. And yet, some old-school activists argue that electronic civil disobedience only creates another form of classism, adding to the gap between haves and have-nots.

Considering that most of the truly oppressed aren't known for their computer-savvy, because they don't have any money or freedom, hacktivism theoretically puts the power and the collective conscience back into the hands of a chosen few, leaving it open to the criticism that it's no more than Jane Fonda radicalism.

With such a new political tactic, there are many glaring issues -- Is hacktivism ethical or responsible? Is it even legal? But for the time being, this one question looms larger than the rest: Knowledge is power -- but whose knowledge, and whose power?

See also: StingWray

Shermakaye Bass is an Austin-based freelancer who covers arts, travel and culture for newspapers and magazines nationwide.