the electrohippies collective's occasional paper no.3:
"Who does the Internet serve?"
"he who pays the piper is only a participant in
he who makes the pipes controls the tune"
Written to accompany the electrohippies presentation to the London
Institute of Contemporary Arts meeting,
Hacktivists: Cyberwarriors Or Political Agoraphobics?, 8th March, 2001
Produced by the electrohippies collective, March 2001.
Note: This paper is also available for download as an
Hacktivism a movement without identity?
There is an ancient proverb, "he who pays the piper calls the
tune". In the world of traditional, real-world media this has been the
case for centuries. But today the Internet, the new mass communications media,
does not work according to this rule. The Internet is a technology-mediated form
of communication. Whoever designs the technical standards, or sets the
framework within which those standards are defined, is the person who controls
the pipe the piper plays; those who pay the piper merely participate in the
process, within the rules of those who control the pipes.
Hacktivism, as a process that people seek to engage in, is a culture searching for
an identity. The history of hacktivism is one of computer geeks engaged in
earnest programming, pranks or stunts, which are mediated by the open
technology of the Internet; perhaps one of the least media comprehensible
subcultures. But over the past five years hacktivism has grown to encompass
whole new areas, from the free and open source software movements, to
localised community pressure campaigns, to global online direct action.
Today, the Internet is under pressure to conform to the model of other mass
media to accept censorship, and some form of political control,
"in the public interest". Consequently, any use of Internet-
mediated communications that seeks to develop an alternative or novel view of
the use of the media must internalise these pressures as part of their argument.
How hacktivists respond to the calls by the 'status quo' for some form of editorial
control over the Internet and Internet-enabled communications will define the
future of how hacktivist actions will take place.
The Internet is a tool nothing more. In addressing the future of the
Internet we should therefore seek to address it's use as an object of utilitarian
function: who does it serve, and hence who defines the form of the medium, who
controls the medium, and who defines the constraints of the
Defining the public medium of the Internet
From the point of view of the electrohippie collective, the Internet is a
Situationists' media. Certainly, that's how we approach our application of
'hacktivism' to Internet-based actions. The Internet was conceived during the
period of the Situationists' International, but at that time it was not a mass media.
How would the various strands of the Situationists movement, such as Guy
Debord, Asger Jorn and Raoul Vaneigem, have addressed the Internet? How
would The Society of the Spectacle read if the Internet had been present as a
viable mass media in the 1950s? The form of the Internet, and its ability to
represent abstraction's of human consciousness, in many ways represent a
The Internet can be broadly summed up as a totally conceptual medium, devoid
of any meaningful human geography, personal stereotypes and real-world
cultural or normative etiquette? The barriers to its use are only technical. In terms
of a movement seeking to democratise arts and expression, it is possible to have
many entertaining hours considering how the Situationists would have used the
media created through the Internet the ultimate psychogeographical
landscape. But the analysis of the leading Situationists, especially how they
defined the interaction of people, of modern technology and of personal
expression, has great relevance to how we can define an identify for hacktivism
In society, when describing groups or persons, we are traditionally encouraged to
frame that description in terms of ethnic, social, national or political allegiances
the very cultural keys the Situationists sought to challenge. These
traditional anchors become weakened or blurred when we look at groups who
use the Internet, in turn creating misunderstanding or uncertainty within the
This new identity created within the Internet is not wholly heterogeneous; it is
dependent upon the framework in which the individual or group addresses the
'Net. Many of those who came to the Internet from real-world groups merely
project an extension of that group's real-world persona. But those wholly virtual
'interest groups' that are today arising on the Internet are developing a new
individually based identity. This identity expresses a far more diverse expression
of personal opinions rather than a group identity, and reflects the nature of the
Internet itself an alliance of decentralised interests rather than centralised
power. It is this underlying transference of the associative structure that gives an
individual equal access to a transnational corporation; it this also this
transference that many in the corporate and political world perceive as
Defining the form of the Internet
The Internet is part of society, but it exists only conceptually. However, any
conceptual entity is open to external redefinition. For example, in the UK the
Internet was promoted as a tremendous platform for e-commerce, bringing 'point
and click' consumerism to the masses. But when that e-commerce platform was
used to buy babies from the USA, it was soundly condemned by much the same
group of people. How we define the value, the threat or the perversity of the 'Net
is therefore directly related to the context, the perceptions and prejudices of the
beholder (yet another Situationist construct).
The lack of a traditional framework within which we can pigeonhole certain
groups or campaigns makes it difficult to grapple for those wishing to elucidate or
disparage the use of the Internet for campaigns and direct action. But the
prejudices of those who oppose, within their 'interpretation' of, what hacktivism is,
also make open debate difficult to achieve. To date hacktivists have been very
bad at communicating a positive message about the potential of the Internet as a
vehicle for public education, participation and debate. Those who have promoted
such ideas have themselves, often as members of right wing and the libertarian
organisations in the USA, had a quixotic relationship with the 'Net (they love
it, but if they ever had power would they tolerate it?). One of the early
principles evolved within the electrohippie collective was that the debate
created by Internet action was more important than the action itself. Hacktivism
needs to openly promote alternative perceptions of the Internet in order to
challenge the authoritarian views of the corporate IT sector and
The problem is, much like the perceptions of the ICA in calling for this debate on
the nature of hacktivism, to define what hacktivists represent. This cannot take
place within the limited and overly pejorative definitions that the term 'hacktivist'
evokes. When deciding a name for the group whom later became known as
the electrohippies we had this debate on 'identity'. In our view hacktivism,
because of the skewed perceptions of the media and politicians on what
'hacktivism' is, doesn't convey the true meaning of what many of those engaged
in hacktivism are striving for. It doesn't encompass the concept of free software, it
doesn't encompass equality of access, and it doesn't encompass Internet
exercisable civil rights.
The lexicon of the IT industry is currently dominated by the IT security goons who
want to stamp out any kind of non-corporate independent thought on electronic
networks. From recent experience , the electrohippies have been able to
demonstrate that these groups not only talk-up the threat from hacktivism, but
they positively manufacture fictitious threats for the consumption of the broadcast
media. What hacktivists must do, to break this confining definition of their
philosophy, is to break the status quo's control over the lexicon by subverting that
control, using terms that make the IT authoritarians contradict or ridicule their
own position. Curiously, this is the same type of thought process as Guy Debord
engaged in when undertaking a decomposition of the then prevalent social
structures of post-war Europe.
Today, there are three conceptual views of the Internet that are challenging the
real-world status quo for domination of this new virtual space:
- Governments who see the Internet as a means to
streamline many functions of society, perhaps to reduce costs, but with a longer
term objective of reinforcing the political status quo through some sort of
'qualitative' control of the medium's content.
- E-commerce who see the Internet as a low-cost trading
environment and, in the longer term, a business medium that can be used to
trade without the usual public pressures associated with commerce (labour
standards, environmental standards, consumer protection, etc.).
- The Utopians (for want of a better label) who see the
Internet as a means to create a seamless, barrier-less medium of human
interaction and consciousness, and therefore a means to greater understanding
and human unity.
All these groups will continue to work and coexist on the 'Net. But, in terms of
which philosophy will prevail, the conflicts over the nature of the Internet, it's
regulation, and the terms on which people have access to it, will be fought over
the next five to ten years as the medium matures within the public
Who controls the medium
Many hacktivists have talked of the 'un-governability' of the Internet. This is a
fallacy, wrapped up within the more libertarian elements of hacker culture that
have emerged from the USA. The fact that the American constitution protects
free speech is no guarantee for the citizens of other states. You may be free to
host controversial material on a US web server, but access it from your own
country and you will commit a criminal offence. Is the Internet, and so the
practice of hacktivism, immune to real-world control? NO.
As has been demonstrated in the UK recently, through the new provisions of the
Terrorism Act 2000 , and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act
2000, the Internet as a whole system is not governable, but the people accessing
it at the end of the pipe are. It makes no difference how free the Internet is if
ordinary people are blocked, surveilled or filtered, without any prior evidence of
wrongdoing, in their accessing of it's content. This is what the combination of the
Terrorism Act, the RIP Act, and the Police Act 1997 enables in the UK. Recent
proposals , drawn up under the sweeping discretion under the RIP Act creates,
also enable all data communications to be centrally stored for four or seven years
for later accessing or study by the authorities.
More worryingly, these repressive new laws developed in the UK are now being
exported both South Korea and Australia have expressed intent to enact
similar laws soon, and The Netherlands is on the way to doing so.
It is important that hacktivism seeks to move beyond the "we're
unstoppable" ethos that dominates it's American origins. The Internet is
vulnerable not as a system, but at the end of the pipe where the
individual accesses it. Such hacktivist bravado really stems from a lack of
political awareness by many hacktivists, and perhaps a utopian naivety about the
forces that have made, and may ultimately break, the open nature of the 'Net.
Across the globe, in response to the public's enthusiastic adoption of the Internet,
states and security forces are adopting new procedures and laws that seek to
make the Internet as something separate, something unique, and something so
fundamentally dangerous that it must be defined as apart from other
communications media. More importantly, through this double standard, states
are seeking to justify the application of highly restrictive laws that offend the very
basis of our hard-won civil rights, and which would not be tolerated for other
It is essential that states are not permitted to seek the same demarcation of
standards in the exercise of the public's civil rights in the use the Internet. As the
Internet becomes and ever-more pervasive mass medium within society, the
exercise of civil rights will increasingly depend upon the ease of access and use
of the 'Net. In this situation, where the exercise of civil rights is dependent upon
access to the 'Net, uncensored and unfiltered Internet access itself must become
a civil right.
Who defines the constraints of the medium
The Internet is a technologically mediated mass communications media. As
such, the transference of information is circumscribed by the stands that this
system of technological apparatus operates to. In the early years of the Internet
all standards were open. But the advent of Internet enabled commerce has led to
a proprietary annexation of the Internet's governing bodies and technical
standards. Two issues stand out here:
- Internet governance There are a number of bodies that
control the operation of the Internet. For example, the Internet Engineering
Task Force (IETF) is an 'expert body' that develops operational standards for
the Internet. To date this body has not come to prominence in the debate about
the Internet although they might shortly as their new standard for Internet
data packets has serious implications for civil liberties. But the more minor of the
governance bodies, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and
Numbers (ICANN) has become very prominent because the names people
can use on the Internet represent intellectual property and therefore carry
great financial value. The recent power struggles within ICANN do not directly
threaten the technical operation of the Internet, but should the IETF come under
the same pressures there would be serious implications for the ability of ordinary
people to use the Internet freely, without proprietary barriers.
- Technical standards As noted above, IETF set standards for
the physical hardware of the Internet. But increasingly IT corporations are
defining their own proprietary standards that sit on top of the 'network layer' that
the Internet represents. Leading these organisations is Microsoft. Microsoft has
an identified policy of adopting a technical standard, adding proprietary functions
to that standard that no one else can use it, and then using their global
dominance in computers to enforce their system over all others. In this way, the
substance of which was the core of the recent Microsoft anti-trust trial in the
USA, Microsoft are able to enforce their own view of "what's good for
the 'Net" over everyone else.
Perhaps the best example of the 'hacktivist' movement is the response to the
technical constraints imposed by the increasing proprietary domination of IT
systems led by the free software and open source movement, enabled by
the freely available GNU/Linux operating system. This is also a good example of
where the traditional media and corporate IT definitions of what hacktivism is
break down. This is a strand of hacktivism that clearly takes human openness
and sharing as it's core philosophy.
Fundamentally, unless the public as a whole are able to become involved within
the issue of Internet governance, and in particular the setting of standards, then
the Internet as a whole will remain vulnerable to exploitation or control by
proprietary interests. This would have an inevitable detrimental impact, compared
to the currently 'open' system, in determining to how the public at large is able, or
are permitted technologically, to use the 'Net.
What is hacktivism?
This has been left to the end. Why? Because, like the term 'Situationism',
'Hacktivism' has no tangible meaning. In 1961, here at a meeting of the
Institute for Contemporary Arts, Maurice Wyckaert was asked "what is
Situationism". Guy Debord, after promptly issuing an insult, then led a
walk out of the Situationists' from the room. A similar issue arises with
'hacktivism'. Hacktivism, as a label, has evolved predominantly as a convenient
tag for activities which many, particularly within the media, do not understand.
But hacktivism cannot encompass, as a term, all those activities that it seeks to
A hacker is someone who is good with computers nothing more. This
should not be confused with people who are good with computers and who use
this expertise to break into computer systems in computer parlance these
people are 'crackers'. The activities of hackers are, to all intent and purposes, far
more benign, but in the process may still threaten many vested interests (such as
governments wanting to restrict debate on public issues, or IT corporations
seeking to restrict the release of free alternatives to their software).
Hacktivism can be anything that the context defines. It can be writing a new utility
for the Linux operating system. It can be developing a new web site to promote
civil rights or social change. It can also be developing online direct actions
against the virtual personas of corporations or governments on the 'Net.
In deciding what the relevance of the Internet is to social movements we have to
identify whom the Internet serves and how, and the tensions that these
differential perceptions of the Internet create and so where the 'hackers'
fit in. As a filtered reflection of society, understanding how the Internet enables
debate or action can provide an insight into how people are using this new
medium. But for the online activists, such as the electrohippies,
understanding how different groups perceive the Internet is the first step in
developing, or influencing, a new online consciousness that can create a new
environment for realising societal change, locally, and even globally.
At its root, hacktivism is seeking to use one's knowledge of IT systems to
create a meaningful human use of computer hardware or computer networks.
Within that definition, anything is possible. It is, like the conceptual nature of the
'Net, defined within the meanings, influenced by the context, that the individual
applies to the action. It is then, ultimately, a Situationist philosophy, and therein
lies the paradox that defines its identity.
- See the electrohippies communiqué, April 2000 (in the 'archive'
section of our
- A briefing on The Terrorism Act is available from the GreenNet
Civil Society Internet Rights Project web site
- See The Observer, 3rd December 2000
leaked copy of the ACPO/NCIS discussion document is available at