Terrorism and Civil Disobedience: Towards an International Ethic of Hacktivism

Mark Manion and Abby Goodrum


The latest form of cyber warfare unites the talents of the computer hacker with the social consciousness of the political activist. Adapting a variation of civil disobedience, with its practices of “trespass” and “blockade” to the electronic age, millions of individuals can participate in virtual sit-ins without leaving the comfort of their computer terminals. Participants in electronic civil disobedience can attack the Web sites of any individual, corporation, or nation that is deemed responsible for oppressing the ethical, social, or political rights of others.

Hactivist groups such as the Electronic Disturbance Theater, the Cult of the Dead Cow, and the Hong Kong Blondes, among others, have used electronic civil disobedience to help advance the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, protest nuclear testing at India’s Bhabba Atomic Research Center, attack Indonesian Government websites over the continued hostile occupation of East Timor, as well as protest the anti-democratic crackdown in China. In addition, hacktivism has been used to inveigh against the corporate domination of telecommunications and mass media, the rapid expansion of dataveillance, and the hegemonic intrusion of the “consumer culture” into the private lives of average citizens.

In fact, the advent of hacktivism may very well mark a critical threshold which could, with the aid of the new computer technologies, lead, on the one hand, to the rapid expansion of individual freedoms and the breaking of barriers to participatory democracy. Hence, hacktivism could play an active and constructive role in the overcoming of political injustice, to educate, inform and be a genuine agent of positive political and social change. On the on the other hand, there is the fear that cyber-activism could reduce to simply a more sophisticated and organized form of computer “cracking,” the breaking into sites for kicks or cash, or, even more disconcerting, to more radical and violent forms of cyber-terrorism. In any event, researchers concerned with ethical issues in computing, policy makers, and computer professionals must come to terms with the complex set of issues surrounding the potential power of hacktivism.

Through an investigation of hacktivism from an international perspective, this paper identifies and discusses four core issues in our understanding of computerization and its potential for advancing social justice around the world. Four proposals in defense of an ethic of hacktivism are developed in light of these issues. The first is that hacktivism, in its advocacy of civil disobedience, demonstrates the necessary relationship between ethics and politics. Second, establishing the validity of grass-roots activism reinforces the potential of computerization for civic empowerment. Third, the debate over control of intellectual property demands that we address issues of social justice such as wealth distribution and equality of opportunity. Fourth, hacktivism, with its focus on pluralism, relativism, and pubic control of information and technology, reinforces and legitimates a “social constructivist” reading of (future) technological progress.