In the month since Aaron Swartz’s death, hacking as a form of activism has gained a new level of attention. While groups like Anonymous have long made headlines for meddling with government websites, Swartz’s civil disobedience was aimed at reforming important but often overlooked parts of our digital world.
But as much buzz as hacktivism has at the moment, its effectiveness and just which problems it should be applied to have yet to be determined. Participants discussed this Monday at “Hackers + Activism,” an event hosted by the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. Author, activist, and co-editor of BoingBoing Cory Doctorow joined ASU professor Dawn Gilpin, Gangplank co-founder Jade Meskill, and Center for Science and the Imagination Director Ed Finn to discuss how hackers engage in activism and whether they can bring about genuine change. More broadly, the panelists addressed how important it is to create legal policy that jibes with current technology. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and the New America Foundation in Future Tense.)
Swartz’s story highlights two popular hacktivist targets: freedom of information and problems with terms of service agreements. In 2008, he scraped about a fifth of the documents from the federal court system’s public records catalog in order to make them freely available to the public. (At the time, the system, PACER, charged eight cents a page to access the records. It now charges 10 cents per page.) And in 2010 he attempted to download research papers en masse from the JSTOR research database—leading to criminal charges.
Doctorow said Swartz’s goal wasn’t as much about freedom of information as it was about “freedom of people.” The documents Swartz downloaded ought to be available to everyone, Doctorow said, either because they were public records explaining how the law is applied, or because they’re taxpayer-funded research. In both cases, there’s an opportunity for technology to liberate information from arcane systems—and while Doctorow doesn’t embrace the notion that all information wants to be free, he said it’s the desire to inform people that drives hacktivism.
Of course, downloading and distributing documents from these sorts of databases violates terms of service agreements. Terms of service agreements are wracked by problems that affect just about everyone, but as the panelists explained, the policies go almost completely unread.
For one, the agreements are contracts between services and their users, but the legal system treats them as though they are laws. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act makes it illegal to intentionally access a computer without authorization or to exceed authorized access. The vague language means it can be used to press charges for violating terms of service agreements, as happened to Swartz. But the 27-year-old law is obsolete—it predates mobile apps, social networks, even Web browsers. “The first anti-hacker laws were written in basically another world,” said Gilpin, a public relations professor who researches social media.
Today, users famously ignore terms of service agreements, paying attention only when the occasional uproar ensues, as happened with Instagram recently. A similar incident occurred in 2005,after News Corp. purchased MySpace. People noticed that the terms of service granted the social network rights to use music uploaded to the site—which was deeply problematic, given that many bands at the time used MySpace as fan sites. Doctorow said this happened because MySpace copied its terms of service from another website when it started up, then never reviewed them. So even though neither side of the agreement—the user and the company—had an adequate understanding, the agreement would have carried the force of law in the legal system.
This isn’t unusual. Gilpin pointed out that companies regularly copy their terms of service from other companies without paying much attention to what’s in them. Small startups often don’t take the time to draft specific terms, and it’s in their interest to remain broad so they don’t have to make revisions with each update. “Terms of service are essentially a virus that infects websites,” Doctorow said.
The hacking community is working hard to fix many disparate problems surrounding technology policy. But to coalesce, Doctorow says hacktivism needs a catch-all term to unite the causes. For instance, he said, the word ecology brought together activists working to combat pollution, stop deforestation, clean the oceans, and more. (He didn’t suggest any terms himself, demonstrating just how tricky a proposition that is.) He added that hacktivists also need to show the public that real people are working for change. While sit-ins and mass demonstrations force others to see activists’ faces, he said hacktivism tends to lose its human element in the computer screen.
Ultimately, though, hacktivists are just like other activists. They use disruption to bring change, and push the limits to speed it up. “We have systems that change very slowly,” said Gilpin, “… and we have people who are growing up in this fast-changing world who aren’t really willing to sit around and wait for things to adapt.”