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Geeks are the New Guardians of Our Civil Liberties

Recent events have highlighted the fact that hackers, coders, and geeks are behind a vibrant political culture.

A decade-plus of anthropological fieldwork among hackers and like-minded geeks has led me to the firm conviction that these people are building one of the most vibrant civil liberties movements we’ve ever seen. It is a culture committed to freeing information, insisting on privacy, and fighting censorship, which in turn propels wide-ranging political activity. In the last year alone, hackers have been behind some of the most powerful political currents out there.

Freedom fighters: A protester wearing a mask takes part in a march protesting SOPA and ACTA in Dublin, Ireland, in February 2012.

Before I elaborate, a brief word on the term “hacker” is probably in order. Even among hackers, it provokes debate. For instance, on the technical front, a hacker might program, administer a network, or tinker with hardware. Ethically and politically, the variability is just as prominent. Some hackers are part of a transgressive, law-breaking tradition, their activities opaque and below the radar. Other hackers write open-source software and pride themselves on access and transparency. While many steer clear of political activity, an increasingly important subset rise up to defend their productive autonomy, or engage in broader social justice and human rights campaigns.

Despite their differences, there are certain  websites and conferences that bring the various hacker clans together. Like any political movement, it is internally diverse but, under the right conditions, individuals with distinct abilities will work in unison toward a cause.

Take, for instance, the reaction to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a far-reaching copyright bill meant to curtail piracy online. SOPA was unraveled before being codified into law due to a massive and elaborate outpouring of dissent driven by the hacker movement.

The linchpin was a “Blackout Day”—a Web-based protest of unprecedented scale. To voice their opposition to the bill, on January 17, 2012, nonprofits, some big Web companies, public interest groups, and thousands of individuals momentarily removed their websites from the Internet and thousands of other citizens called or e-mailed their representatives. Journalists eventually wrote a torrent of articles. Less than a week later, in response to these stunning events, SOPA and PIPA, its counterpart in the Senate, were tabled (see “SOPA Battle Won, but War Continues”).

The victory hinged on its broad base of support cultivated by hackers and geeks. The participation of corporate giants like Google, respected Internet personalities like Jimmy Wales, and the civil liberties organization EFF was crucial to its success. But the geek and hacker contingent was palpably present, and included, of course, Anonymous. Since 2008, activists have rallied under this banner to initiate targeted demonstrations, publicize various wrongdoings, leak sensitive data, engage in digital direct action, and provide technology assistance for revolutionary movements.

As part of the SOPA protests, Anonymous churned out videos and propaganda posters and provided constant updates on several prominent Twitter accounts, such as Your Anonymous News, which are brimming with followers. When the blackout ended, corporate players naturally receded from the limelight and went back to work. Anonymous and others, however, continue to fight for Internet freedoms.

In fact, just the next day, on January 18, 2012, federal authorities orchestrated the takedown of the popular file-sharing site MegaUpload. The company’s gregarious and controversial founder Kim Dotcom was also arrested in a dramatic early morning raid in New Zealand. The removal of this popular website was received ominously by Anonymous activists: it seemed to confirm that if bills like SOPA become law, censorship would become a far more common fixture on the Internet. Even though no court had yet found Kim Dotcom guilty of piracy, his property was still confiscated and his website knocked off the Internet.

As soon as the news broke, Anonymous coordinated its largest distributed denial of service campaign to date. It took down a slew of websites, including the homepage of Universal Music, the FBI, the U.S. Copyright Office, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the Motion Picture Association of America.

Just a few weeks later, in Europe, as massive online and offline demonstrations, notably in Denmark and Poland, were unfolding to protest ACTA, another international copyright agreement, Anonymous again appeared (see “Europeans Protest Anti-Piracy Treaty”). After the Polish government agreed to ratify ACTA, Anonymous took down a slew of government websites and publicized street protests sweeping Krakow. Soon after, the left-leaning Polish Party, Palikot’s Movement Party, adopted the signature Anonymous symbol, the Guy Fawkes masks, wearing them during a parliamentary session to protest ACTA. Amidst this and many other outcries, the European Union scrapped this proposed law in July 2012.

So powerful was Anonymous in these events that a few weeks after they passed, I received a call from a venture capitalist involved with organizing the SOPA protests. He wanted to learn more about how Anonymous operated and whether its participants could be harnessed a little more directly. The beauty and frustration of Anonymous lies in an unruly and unpredictable spontaneity—as they like to boast, “We are not your personal army.” But his intuition—that they were an important part of the mix—was correct.

One key ingredient to the success of Anonymous lies in its participatory nature, especially when compared to spheres of hacker action where technical skill is a prerequisite for participation (and often respect). Skilled hackers are indeed vital to Anonymous’s networks—they set up communication infrastructure and grab most of the headlines—for instance, when they hack into servers to search for information on government or corporate corruption. Hacking, however, still remains one tool of many (and some Anonymous subgroups oppose hacking and defacing). There is other work to be done: stirring press releases to write, propaganda posters to design, and videos to edit. Geeks and hackers may have different skills sets, but they are often traveling companions online, ingesting similar news, following similar geeky cultural currents, and defending Internet freedom, although using distinct methods and styles of organizing.

The depth, extent, and especially diversity of this geek political movement was made evident to me just recently, not at an official political event but at a memorial service that doubled as an informal political rally. Over a thousand people gathered in New York City’s regal Cooper Union Hall to honor Aaron Swartz, a hacker and self-proclaimed activist who had recently taken his own life, some say due to government overreach in his federal case concerning the legality of downloading millions of academic articles from MIT’s library website (see “Why Aaron Swartz’s Ideas Matter”).

They spoke about Aaron’s life, quirky personality, and especially his political accomplishments and aspirations. Like his peers, he abhorred censorship, and thus naturally joined the fight against SOPA; the service featured snippets of his famous keynote address at the Freedom to Connect conference from May 2012, when Swartz said, “It was really stopped by the people themselves.” He had been instrumental in fundamental ways, for he had founded an organization, Demand Progress, a nonprofit that had effectively harnessed this citizen discontent over SOPA through petitions and other campaigns.

Unlike Anonymous, which has no single mission, physical address, or official spokesperson, Demand Progress is an institution with a board and executive director located in the heart of political power, Washington, D.C. Although it channels, quite effectively, grassroots activities in the service of protecting civil liberties, a contained group can coördinate action with deliberation and precision.

Clearly geeks and hackers are behind distinct modalities of political organizing, willing to deploy a diverse array of tactics. Demand Progress, along with the prominence of the Pirate Party in Western Europe, demonstrates the willingness of geeks and hackers to work within existing institutional channels. And all signs point to this type of traditional political activity becoming more common. But it will likely exist alongside the loosely organized acts of disobedience, defiance, and protests that have also become more frequent and visible in the last few years, in large part thanks to Anonymous.

But on that Saturday afternoon, any differences were largely cast aside in favor of standing united in grief, in commemoration, especially in the conviction that the battle to preserve civil liberties has really only just begun.  

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