Are Geeks the New Guardians of Our Civil Liberties?

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Gabriella Coleman

Anonymous, the hacktivist collective that Fox News once called “the Internet hate machine” has undergone a dramatic rebranding in recent months. Once thought to be a public nuisance, their work seeking justice in the Steubenville rape case and other actions they’ve taken to improve society has earned them a new moniker: the “white knights of the digital realm.”

Gabriella Coleman is the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at Canada’s McGill University and one of the foremost experts on Anonymous. Trained as an anthropologist, she examines the ethics of online collaboration and the role of the law and digital media in sustaining various forms of political activism.

We caught up with Coleman earlier this month in Denver at the National Conference for Media Reform where she spoke on a panel that asked “Are Geeks the New Guardians of Our Civil Liberties?” She is the author of Coding Freedom and is currently working on a new book about Anonymous and digital activism.

Riley: Many people became more familiar with the world of hacking because of the tragic death of Aaron Swartz. How do you think his story may change, or has already changed, the perception of hackers?

Gabriella Coleman: Aaron Swartz considered himself both a hacker and an activist. He was also very involved in the free culture movement — Creative Commons — which drew inspiration from the hacker community to create licenses that could be used on other media, such as music and art software. In some ways he was the quintessential hacker, by which I mean extremely clever and bright. Folks like Tim Berners-Lee called him an ‘elder’ when he passed away. A lot of hackers are bright and precocious, but he pushed that envelope. He was a hacker who worked on technology, but he was also very committed to open access — and from a very young age, when he was 14 or 15. While hackers are often adept at programming at a young age, to be so politically inclined at that age is unusual, so he really stood out.

The reaction [to his death] from the hacker community was unlike anything I had ever seen. I remember very distinctly, because I was home on Twitter, and it was just this flood and outpouring. He wasn’t this hacker just breaking the law for the fun of it. He was very mindful as to why he did things, and he was very respected by a wide cohort of individuals. It really brought into relief the problems with the law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, under which he was being tried. For a very long time, activists and lawyers have said the law’s too broad and vague, and this became a moment and cause by which to really make that utterly clear. There’s now a whole set of initiatives to finally reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Riley: You’ve mentioned that the harshness of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has resulted in the “offshoring” of some political activities. What are some examples of civil disobedience online?

Coleman: There have been politically motivated leaks procured through hacking, as well as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which is basically overwhelming a web server with too many requests so you can’t access it.

In the context of the United States, a DDoS falls under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, so an individual who participates in a protest could be fined over $100,000 and face 20 years in jail. If someone wants to engage in civil disobedience, there should perhaps be a legal repercussion, but whether it deserves 20 years in jail, probably not. But there’s really no leeway in the United States over this activity.

Anonymous supporters wearing Guy Fawkes masks pause for fellow protesters and members of the media to film and photograph them with a banner as they take part in a protest march along Whitehall to Britain's Houses of Parliament in London, Monday, Nov. 5, 2012. The protest was held on November 5, to coincide with the failed 1605 gunpowder plot to blow up the House of Lords. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Anonymous supporters wearing Guy Fawkes masks pause for fellow protesters and members of the media to film and photograph them as they take part in a protest march to Britain's Houses of Parliament in London, Nov. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Some hacker activists now have a division of labor where some of the labor is performed by people not in the United States and Europe, because they’re in some ways beyond the reach of the law. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be caught and ascertained in certain ways, but I think people are cognizant of the legal risks entailed in the United States with these sorts of activities.

The early instances of DDoS being used for political purposes was by a group called the Electronic Disturbance Theater, who used it in the late ’90s. They would send too many requests to the Mexican government [website] to show their support of the Zapatistas. The DDoS is actually one of the most controversial tactics among the hacker community. Some say it’s useful in some instances but loses its ability very quickly to garner attention. Some say it’s just not clever. Others are very opposed to it, because they say that if you take down a webpage you’re taking away someone’s ability to speak.

Riley: What are some of the other issues hackers tend to care about?

Coleman: Computers are omnipresent; they’re everywhere. They have our data, they perform our transactions, they’re the media through which we form social relationships. And because of that, anything and everything can relate to computer hackers, whether it’s accessing information for the purposes of leaking, as Bradley Manning did, or rebuilding technology to embody certain values. It’s kind of everywhere at some level, and that’s one of the reasons why we see hackers getting involved in so many different domains of politics.

But there are some bread and butter issues: free speech and privacy, civil liberties. This is something that a lot of hackers who tend towards the political domain care about quite deeply. But when it comes to freeing information, it exceeds questions of the Internet, of course. There’s been the rise of civic hacking, which concerns accessing (let’s just say) government data of different sorts and rendering it into useable form. In a lot of instances, data exists but not in a format that’s useable. So they write tools that make it useable for other formats, for identifying patterns and for visualizing trends.

Riley: What about privacy online? That’s a big issue for many people, particularly on Facebook.

Coleman: It’s an interesting moment, because there’s so little of it when it comes to the Internet. The data that sits on servers, or the many platforms that people use, from Gmail to Facebook, is mined to deliver the perfect advertising environment. This is a known fact, but it’s also the case that when the government needs the data, it’s very easily accessible. Hackers tend to care quite a bit about privacy and provide tools so that people can keep their communications private. There’s pockets of protection, but generally on the Internet it’s actually really, really hard to have anonymity or privacy.

Riley: Although there are women involved with Anonymous, you’ve talked about how they are in the minority. If the future of protest and civil liberties protection is online, it could be a real problem if women, people of color and poor communities don’t have the skills to participate, right?

Coleman: That’s absolutely right. There’s so much economic and political power that’s tied into technical literacies, and there’s many different types, from administering a server to coding software. It’s very skewed toward the male side of things and there’s some forms of sexism in the community. There’s been a lot of initiatives to broaden the scope, and there have been some very interesting diversity and gender projects as well.

But even if the hacker community did everything under the sun to get rid of sexism and create initiatives to diversify things, it would not be enough. It would not be enough because outside of the world of hacking there’s such disparities in computer science. For example, in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — majors tend to be pretty even [women/men] in math and engineering. In computer science, it’s about 19 percent women. The peak of women majors came in 1985.

One of the interesting things about the world of hacking is that many hackers got their start at a very young age — three, four, five, six, seven years old — and so women who are catching up and getting computer science degrees are already way behind the curve. Really the only solution is to integrate computer science curriculum in elementary and middle schools. That is the one way to make sure that a wide swath of very different types of people gain these skills, which, again, translates to both economic and politic power.

Listen to Coleman’s panel at the National Conference for Media Reform.

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