Hacktivism Pt. 3: In The Name of Freedom

Here’s a statement I found from a top U.S. government official during the first few months of the Arab Spring:

We are the United States. We are everywhere. And we fight for freedom. We fight for free speech. We fight against censorship. Together with the citizens of the world we are strong. The actions of the regimes will not be forgotten, nor will they be forgiven.

The United States hears those cries, and we will assist in bringing to justice those who commit criminal acts against the innocent. We will not remain silent and let these crimes against humanity continue.

Say no to Censorship and dictatorship.

Any American who read those words would wholeheartedly agree with them. Well, what if I told you this wasn’t a quote from a U.S. government official, but a member of Anonymous? Here’s the actual quote:

We are Anonymous. We are everywhere. And we fight for freedom. We fight for free speech. We fight against censorship. Together with the citizens of the world we are strong. The actions of the regimes will not be forgotten, nor will they be forgiven.

Anonymous hears those cries, and we will assist in bringing to justice those who commit criminal acts against the innocent. We will not remain silent and let these crimes against humanity continue.

Say no to Censorship and dictatorship.

The question we have to ask ourselves is why we would hesitate to say anything positive about that statement, when a similar statement from the United States government would garner unwavering support, especially considering that hacker groups are more likely to uphold those words than the government anyway.

I understand this might be a controversial viewpoint, considering the malicious nature of most hackers nowadays, but there are groups like Anonymous who actually believe in maximum freedom, as opposed to the limited freedoms we have in contemporary democracies. Individual hackers are even risking their personal freedoms (going to prison) to protect the freedoms of the masses.

A 2000 editorial from the University of Southern California’s Daily Trojan bizarrely argued that “hackers restrict internet freedom.” The author seems to have very little evidence to back up these claims, and is actually arguing the exact opposite position.

As the technological age progresses, it is important for governments to remain up to date on the latest security measures so that the nation remains secure.

I went through that exact same argument yesterday, so I’m not contesting the importance of cybersecurity, but it is not hackers who are restricting internet freedom, it is governments. Later on, I’ll turn the focus to an important speech Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave on internet freedom, but right now I want to highlight a question that Clinton was asked after her speech from a reporter from the website “Libya Freedom.”

We have been attacked and hacked many times. I would like Madame Secretary to tell me how can you help those voices which do not have, you know, the technology or the money to protect themselves, protect them against the hackers which are the silencers of voices from outside the countries which lacks freedom and freedom of expression.

Clinton did not answer the question directly, but did indicate a willingness to discuss it in a different forum. But again, you need to distinguish between malicious hackers in favor of cyber-censorship, and the vast swath of hackers who actually believe in the right of citizens to total information access. Make no mistake about it, government-sanctioned hackers are just as committed to censorship as the most activist cybersecurity hawks. And when governments engage in hacking, it’s important to deal with it as a legitimate threat. But hackers like Anonymous do not pose the same threat as a collective of government hackers, their agenda is anti-authoritarian.

According to the 2011 United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals Report, 5.3 billion people are using cell phones worldwide, and over 2 billion have access to the internet. Remember, our global population currently stands at 6.7 billion. So over two-thirds of the population still do not have access to the internet. In developing regions, only 20% of the population have access to the internet, while in the least developed countries less than 5% of the population have web access.

The United Nations recently declared that internet freedom is a human right, and “any restriction to the right of freedom of expression must meet the strict criteria under international human rights law.” The Human Rights Council report explains what constitutes a restriction on the internet:

A restriction on the right of individuals to express themselves through the Internet can take various forms, from technical measures to prevent access to certain content, such as blocking and filtering, to inadequate guarantees of the right to privacy and protection of personal data, which inhibit the dissemination of opinions and information.

Most dictatorships censor internet access, and would rightly be condemned for doing so, but what about developed nations with elected representatives? For example, last month, police in Denmark proposed a ban on anonymous use of the internet. Basically, you would have to confirm personal identification before you could access the internet. Oh, and the government would be able to monitor all of your internet use.

If we knew what hackers were doing for internet freedom in oppressed nations, we would applaud them. Anonymous hacked government servers in Iran, and posted the login details of Middle Eastern government officials.

One of the biggest defenders of internet censorship is a man named Fang Binxing. If you do not know who Fang Binxing is, familiarize yourself with him. This man is known as the father of “The Great Firewall of China.” The firewall blocks social networking sites and pretty much everything that doesn’t come from a “China is great and good” perspective. Binxing refuses to reveal how the Firewall works, but we do know is that it blocks certain websites and blogs based on certain keywords.

He claims that internet censorship is a “common phenomenon around the world,” as if the “everybody does it” defense applies to freedom of information. The man is clearly revered by the government, but two months ago a Chinese college student against the Firewall threw eggs and shoes at Binxing. According to The New York Times, other students wanted to join in the protest, but they “lost courage” when they saw a professor and graduate supervisor nearby. (By the way, Binxing was at the college to give a lecture to the department of computer science.)

Binxing believes the Firewall is necessary to protect China against Western activists who he thinks want to “bring chaos to China by taking advantage of the Internet’s effectiveness as a multiplier.” If you want to find out exactly which websites are censored behind the Firewall, I urge you to take a look at the site GreatFirewallofChina.org, and type in any URL to see if it is blocked in China.

When he visited China in November 2009, President Obama made a speech in a room full of students on the subject of internet freedom.

“The more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable.”

However, as The New York Times pointed out, the president “didn’t explicitly call on China’s leaders to lift the veil of state control that restricts Internet access and online social networking here.” I highlight this point only to contrast it with an open letter Anonymous published on Facebook as part of their movement “Operation China.”

Anonymous addressed the letter to “the Initiators of China’s Jasmine Revolution.” Here’s a selection from their 10-point list of suggestions and appeals.

1. Our biggest hope lies on the increase of people walking with smile on the street, and we want to avoid any excuse made by the government at this initial warm-up stage. We sincerely ask that all the participants fully endorse a moderate, civil and rational approach with walking and smiling. No shouting of slogans at this stage, but coming out for exercise every week.

3. Furthermore, we appeal that the younger generation born post 80s and 90s actively participate in this historical movement. Similar movements around the world have seen your strength and courage. As a matter of fact, it is precisely due to the young energies among our initiators that we can be so creative and maintain a high level of textual editing, internet security, information dissemination and English translation.

6. We suggest that the participants be aware of each other’s safety. Whenever a person is in trouble, we should come close and shout, “Thief!” or “Robber!”, and make a rescue effort. In the meantime, please keep the cleanliness of the site and no litter.

9. Renown activists such as Teng Biao, Ran Yunfei, Tang Jitian, Chen Wei, Gu Chuan, Liu Guohui are not involved nor participated in the Jasmine Revolution, but are still being suppressed and detained up till now, to which we issue our strongest criticism and request that the government release them immediately.

Now we come back to Hillary Clinton’s 2010 speech on internet freedom, a speech I would argue is one of the most important speeches of the 21st century because of its subject matter. Here is what Clinton had to say specifically about China:

The internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it is fabulous. There are so many people in China now online. But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century. Now, the United States and China have different views on this issue, and we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently in the context of our positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship.

The rest of the speech was just as supportive of internet freedom, and Clinton, while somewhat hawkish on cybersecurity, laid out clear directives on how best the United States can harness communications networks and give millions access to the internet in repressive regimes.

However, I cannot help but draw a contrast between these remarks and her reaction to the fallout from last year’s Wikileaks scandal. She described the Wikileaks leak of 250,000 State Department memos as “an attack on America,” and the leaks “tear at the fabric” of our government.

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, endorsing what Wikileaks does, but if you truly believe that internet freedom is important, you have to understand that activists for the cause will do whatever they can to make sure it is upheld. And another question in need of answering is why information hacked from foreign nations is a triumph in the war for internet freedom, by information hacked from the United States is act act of war or terrorism.

And, in fact, the Wikileaks documents revealed corruption in some of the countries we know are engaging in internet censorship. Moez Limayem, associate dean at the University of Arkansas, was in Tunisia when the country began to rise up against the ruling regime. This is what he thought of the Wikileaks releases:

The leaked documents provided key fuel for the pro-democracy movement, he says.

“People everywhere were talking about two things that were clear from the documents,” he says. First, they provided clear evidence of massive corruption in the country’s leadership. “It called them a mafia,” he says.

The diplomatic cables also revealed to the Tunisians that the US was not behind their government, “so they thought perhaps it would not be so hard after all to get rid of them with protests.”

A political movement takes two things, he says, “hunger and anger.” The WikiLeaks documents provided the fuel for both, he adds, hunger for change and anger at the abuses of power.

So if we truly believe in the principles of cause and effect, then the Wikileaks documents that revealed corruption in the governments of Tunisia, Yemen, etc. directly influenced the events of the Arab Spring. And clearly United States officials like Hillary Clinton have been very supportive of the democracy movement.

The reason Anonymous identifies with the mask of V for Vendetta is because the main character’s message is one that resonates with those who believe in the tents of absolute freedom: “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.” And people who are dedicated to bringing down oppressive governments should be applauded by those would otherwise dismiss them as a threat to the very freedoms they’re trying to protect.