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Generations of Hacktivism

Tim Jordan (UKL): Generations of Hacktivism 

Photo of Tim Jordan

Ethics are often embedded in culturally, socially and technologically specific struggles. This paper will briefly overview three 'generations' of hacktivist action to reflect on their concrete ethical issues. The first period examined is the 'pre-history' of hacktivism, during which politically motivated online actions were rare but which established two important sources for hacktivism. The first source emerged in the transition from phone phreaking to cracking that established the idea of breaking into computer networks as a form of expertise-enabled exploration which could be used as a political tactic. At the same time various ideologists of the internet were conceiving of it as a place, often called cyberspace, which had its own form of politics. Hacktivism emerged as a self-defined political movement in the mid-1990s drawing on both these ideas of cracking as exploration and the internet as a place with a specific politics. From this emerged two different types of hacktivism. Mass action hacktivism moved against the pre-history by developing forms of mass online protest that utilised impaired internet technologies and was closely associated with the late twentieth century alter-globalisation movement. Digitally correct hacktivism drew on the pre-history by developing tools to secure free flows of information over the internet and though closely associated with human rights struggles these hacktivists also developed a politics of the internet in their defence of secure access to information. Both these forms of hacktivism continue to exist but now alongside a third and further generation exemplified by the actions around Anonymous. These forms of hacktivism develop new tactics in breaking into sites in order to access and leak information, while also sometimes building on the development of tools (such as the digital care packages during the Tunisian revolution). The broader ethics of hacktivism will be considered as the use of hacking techniques as tools for politics (and their broad neutrality toward other political causes) and as developing an information politics.


Tim Jordan leads development of digital culture teaching and research at King's College London. He is the author of Internet, Society and Culture: communicative practices before and after the Internet (2013) and Hacking: digital media and technological determinism (2008) along with other publications. His research interests have been focused on hacking and hacktivism since the mid-1990s and he is currently working on an examination of the politics of information. Tim teaches on the MA Digital Culture and Society at King's College London and the launch of a BA Digital Culture in October 2015.