As the court trial over his extradition to Sweden kicked off last week, and with Panorama exploring his leadership and motivations, again WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has found himself amongst the headlines. His controversial actions have provoked a strong public response; his supporters proclaim the innate value of liberating information while his opponents believe that information that could have a negative (or even catastrophic) effect should remain private.
So do we judge the morality of an action on the action itself, or on the consequences it could bring? If we take the view that WikiLeaks should not be publishing anything that could consequently damage national security or interfere with international diplomacy, they are suddenly burdened with the huge responsibility of deciding what information is and is not in the public interest, which is the very role of the organisations they are trying to decentralise. On the other hand, if we believe that WikiLeaks should be truly indiscriminate, then it should have no political agenda and expose all types of documents in all types of organisations, including human rights campaigns and democratic movements, as well as personal information on individuals. Can we really accept this as a moral obligation?
Let’s leave the philosophy debate aside for now. WikiLeaks’ leaking of information is just one example of vigilante-style use of the internet. One of the most intriguing aspects of this trend is that a code of ethics seems to have arisen among groups who use the internet in this way. A loose-knit group of hackers who operate under the name ‘Anonymous’ have been responsible for a number of controversial internet campaigns, but they tend to adhere to a shared philosophy, known as the hacker ethic. Central to this are the principles of information sharing and decentralisation of authority, so the fact that they support Julian Assange should come as no surprise.
Many of Anonymous’ attack targets are organisations that they perceive to threaten civil liberties in some way – yet another demonstration of their subjective ethical code. Not only did they declare war on the Church of Scientology for alleged censorship and exploitation, they mobilised in support of the Tunisian and Egyptian protesters calling for democracy. However, not all of their causes could be considered so noble. Attacks against YouTube (for the removal of music videos) and security firm HBGary Federal (for claiming to have infiltrated Anonymous) received widespread criticism, as have the group’s methods of attack, which tend to involve obtaining control of a website and then posting offensive material.
There are fears that the ‘collaborative people power’ of the internet will soon come to an end. Studies show that more and more activity online is spent on fewer and fewer websites, so that a small number of huge websites dominate most traffic. Even though some of these sites, such as Facebook, focus on user-created content, the information is controlled and restricted by the owners of the site. This means that the very characteristics of the web which made it so popular (openness, access to unlimited and uncensored information, freedom of interaction) could potentially be limited by large corporations and governments. With proposals for a US ‘kill-switch’ which could be used to shut off parts of the internet, censorship is becoming more and more of an issue as governments recognise the power of the web as a vehicle for political mobilisation.
Young people are often labelled apathetic, and older generations reminisce about the days of student political activism. Whilst you may not agree with their causes or methods, there is no denying that ‘hacktivists’ such as Anonymous represent a form of cyber-rebellion that is the digital manifestation of the spirit of revolution about which people are nostalgic. In fact, because so many organisations are heavily dependent on computerised systems, even individual hacktivists who gain control of these systems could cause a devastating amount of damage and have a much more direct impact than their street-protesting counterparts. Moreover, the ability of the internet to connect like-minded people means that hacktivists with a common goal can group together and acquire an unprecedented amount of power. Perhaps this is why authority figures appear to feel so threatened.