Soaring out of the jungles on the southern border of Mexico, the Zapatista Air Force took flight. Almost exactly six years after the Zapatista Liberation Army (ELZN) first occupied the Chiapas in 1994 to oppose neoliberal and repressive government policies, they launched hundreds of planes over Mexican soldiers in the city of Amador Hernandez (Lane, 2003, p. 129). Throughout the attack no bombs were dropped and no shots were fired. In fact, the Zapatistas did not even have an airplane runway. Instead, the ELZN had flown paper airplanes adorned with poetry over the barbed wire fences of the Mexican Army barracks.
A companion fleet of planes was launched a year later (Lane, 2003). This time, however, they flew over the barbed wire of online security fences. The Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT), a digital Zapatista support group formed in the United States, created a Java application that could be used to scan connection points, or ports, of computers connected to the Internet (Electronic Disturbance Theatre, n.d.). The application was dubbed the Zapatista Tribal Port Scan because it required more than one computer to distribute a message in a communal, or tribal, fashion to the target website. Each time a port was scanned, a part of an ELZN poem for peace was logged on the receiving machine (Lane, 2003). The target machine, bombarded by thousands of digital paper airplane messages, would then assemble and rewrite the messages on its internal logs and deliver a full text to the administrators of the Mexican and U.S. military and government websites.
Despite years of military offense from the Mexican state, the ELZN continues to avoid responding with militant aggression after its initial violent rebellion. In response to a 1995 military attack, they released this statement:
The EZLN does not want war, but it will not turn over its weapons…We are prepared to respond, but for now, in the near future, the order is to resist (combat), so it is clear that the one who wants war is the government and not the Zapatistas. We want dialogue, but not like this, surrounded. (Dominguez, 1995)
Hacktivism has been most unfairly linked to destruction and terrorism. This is perhaps tied to a fundamental misunderstanding of one of the root words: “hack.” Despite hacking’s storied history as a form of creative and political expression, many layers of media and government misrepresentation have obscured its original meanings (Vegh, 2005). Popular films have commonly portrayed perpetrators of hacking (hackers) as dorky, over-caffeinated men hunched over computer screens with fingers flying furiously over their keyboards. Another popular iteration is the evil hacker with a thick foreign accent who stares intently at a screen whilst breaking into some sort of mainframe, server, or thermonuclear control system. Unlike these exaggerated portrayals, the origins of the term “hack” are much more innocuous and broad.
Hacking has always been understood within its community of practitioners as a largely creative rather than purely destructive enterprise. According to Tim Jordan and Paul Taylor, a hack was once popularly understood to be “the performance of a neat trick…an attempt to make use of technology in an original, unorthodox, and inventive way” (2004, p. 6). Taylor further expounds in a separate essay that the goal of hackers was to “reverse engineer technology to do the opposite of its intended design; and…explore systems” (2005, p. 628). One early example of hacking was the practice of “phone phreaking” which involved the use of creative techniques to procure free calls on public phones (Jordan & Taylor, 2004). Hacks, which began as clever pranks, evolved as technology moved beyond the realm of landlines and phone booths to fiber optic cables and smartphones.
Steven Levy identifies three major generations that fit under the early broad umbrella of hacking. The first generation in the 1950s and 1960s consisted of scientists at research institutions experimenting with large room-sized computers. The term hacker was used endearingly to describe colleagues displaying great ingenuity. The second generation of hackers in the 1970s helped to more widely distribute personal computing hardware (think Steve Jobs in his parents’ garage). A third generation in the 1980s then created and distributed gaming software (Levy 1994).
Taylor updated Levy’s findings with four additional generations of hackers. Beginning in the mid-1980s, hackers became identified with people who illegally intruded into others’ computers, no doubt contributing greatly to the dangerous hacker trope. This generation was followed by the “microserfs” of the 1990s who coded for large corporations like Microsoft. Open source hackers emerged around the same time period, calling for the freedom of software for tinkering and collective improvement. This finally gave way to the hacktivists of the mid-1990s to today. These hackers were notable for making politics the core motivation of their work rather than a marginal consideration. While the hacktivist generation was the last to form, since its inception, hacking has been “an inherently political act: the liberation of information” (Samuel, 2004, p. 42).
Today, there are broadly two types of hacktivists: those that emerged from hacker-programmer culture and those from artist-activist culture (Samuel, 2004). The issues and means of accomplishing political ends differentiate the two camps. The former group focuses on freedom of speech, right to online privacy, freedom to share copyrighted intellectual property, open standards, and free or open source software (Samuel, 2004, p. 42). These hacktivists use tactics that are technically advanced and generally involve a small group of dedicated participants. Defacing sites, launching denial of service attacks, building free software, and decrypting protected copyright content are some of the projects hacker-programmers tackle.
Unlike the hacker-programmer group, the artist-activist or performative hacktivists draw more readily from the traditions of mass protests. Performative hacktivists also generally take aim at issues like “globalization, corporate power, human rights, civil rights, and the environment” (Samuel, 2004, p. 46). Their tools of resistance are virtual sit-ins and site parodies—tactics that are rooted in forms of traditional offline demonstrations like strikes and picket signs. These tactics do not aim to change policy directly, but rather to call attention to an issue and place public pressure on key decision-makers by making “politics look more like play” (Samuel, 2004, p. 47).
Drawing from postmodern leftist theorists like Foucault and Baudrillard, performative hacktivists highlight offline issues through a fusion of art with online spectacle and disruption (Samuel, 2004). As in the case of the EDT paper airplanes, the effect is to create imaginative forms of activism that draws increased participation and media coverage. Unlike the actions of hacker-programmer hacktivists, performative “hacktions” are accessible to the masses and may therefore be seen as more democratic or legitimate. Performative hacktivists, unlike many hacker-programmers, are accountable for their actions, operating under their real names or easily traceable handles. The Internet is the new realm of civic participation with websites as the public spaces–the town squares where hacktivists are able to visibly challenge prevailing corporate or state narratives. One of the seminal acts of performative hacktivism came from the EDT in support of the Zapatistas.
On January 1st 1994, two thousand armed and unarmed revolutionaries occupied the Mexican state of Chiapas (Ronfeldt, 1998). The Zapatista National Liberation Army (ELZN), as they called themselves, declared war on the Mexican government, but clarified that they were not interested in seizing power. Rather, they demanded deep economic and political reforms in response to the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and what they saw as the destruction of the indigenous cultures by the Mexican government.
In a matter of days, the number of occupiers swelled to 12,000 even as the government unleashed military and police forces on the growing rebellion (Ronfeldt, 1998). Only 11 days later, under the glare of media coverage and scrutiny of human rights groups, the Mexican government declared a ceasefire. With the newly forged shield of the public eye, a nonviolent ELZN insurgency, now in the Lacondón jungles on the southern border of Mexico, continued its resistance to the state. Over the next two decades, the Mexican government would continue to launch military attacks against the insurgency in the Chiapas in an effort to take over indigenous lands and imprison Chiapas leaders.
The tool helped facilitate an online sit-in of target websites. Users downloaded the code onto their computers and typed in a URL. Then, at the assigned time, participants started the program which essentially meant that their computers were visiting the website. Each visit constituted yet another request for information from the target website’s servers. By recruiting large amounts of people, the attack would request enough information to slow down the website or shut it down completely. Unlike other denial of service attacks, which could be carried out by a relatively small group of highly skilled hacktivists, the Floodnet approach utilized mass layperson participation and attached an individual body to each attack.
The first virtual sit-in took place on January 29, 1998 targeting the websites of various Mexican banks and financial institutions that Dominguez called “’symbols of Mexican neoliberalism’” (Jordan & Taylor, 2004, p. 72). The EDT continued their support of the ELZN in September 1998 at the artist-activist oriented Ars Electronica festival in Austria by calling on computer users to “swarm” the websites of Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, the Pentagon, and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange (Samuel, 2004, p. 80). 8,141 participants connected to Floodnet in the second round of virtual sit-ins (Kaplan, 1998). The Pentagon even counterattacked by creating its own denial of service applet that crashed Floodnet participants’ browsers. While the Floodnet swarms did not slow traffic significantly, the power in numbers of participants and the responses of the target institutions to the attacks generated the desired effect of generating media coverage.
Of course, EDT is not without its critics. Some hacktivists sneered at the lack of technical prowess in the technique. Others felt that it ran counter to the hacktivist ethics to slow the free exchange of information and effectively censor content (Taylor, 2005). They believed that the EDT overstepped a boundary by silencing opposed views rather than liberating information, a fundamental tradition in hacktivist history.
This view, however, misses the point. It is in the very inefficiency of the program that Floodnet gains its legitimacy. EDT’s actions set the bar for performative hacktivism by emphasizing the social impact over the technical nature of an action. It created a platform through which everyday computer users from around the world could democratically participate in a common demonstration of solidarity. Additionally, the actions of the EDT did not permanently silence the views of states and their militaries and only temporarily slowed or brought down the targeted websites. This does not amount to censorship, which requires the ability to systemically and undemocratically silence particular views. The EDT’s work can more appropriately be weighed against the repressive actions of the Mexican military and the government, which set out to violently censor and eliminate opposing views.
The actions of EDT and the ELZN in the 1990s offered a glimpse at the current state of online hacktivism. The Floodnet software was subsequently released and has since been used in other online hacktions to protest everything from the arms proliferation to low wages (Samuel, 2004). New groups like Anonymous and Lulz Security, inspired by previous generations, have taken up the hacktivist call to arms. These collectives, made up of mostly young people, engage in direct action and electronic civil disobedience, shutting down websites like Amazon and Paypal that refused to do business with Wikileaks under government pressure (Constanza-Chock, 2011).
As the Internet is increasingly subject to state and corporate bombardment, artists and activists compete for the attention of an increasingly impatient, antsy, and fickle audience with short attention spans. By finding new, creative channels of participation, performative hacktivists have pierced through the daily spectacle of society. The surge of revolutionary activity and organizing online has begun to challenge the inequality of power.
Constanza-Chock, S. (2011, March 3). Interview with Sasha Costanza-Chock. Retrieved from http://www.namac.org/node/25571
Dominguez, R. (1995, December 13). Run for the Border: The Taco Bell War. CTheory.net. Retrieved November 19, 2011, from http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=155
Electronic Disturbance Theatre. (n.d.). Zapatista Tribal Port Scan: Demonstration of Concept. Zapatista Tribal Port Scan. Retrieved November 19, 2011, from http://switch.sjsu.edu/v6n2/ztps/
Jordan, T., & Taylor, P. A. (2004). Hacktivism and cyberwars: rebels with a cause? Psychology Press.
Kaplan, C. (1998, May 1). For Their Civil Disobedience, the “Sit-in” is Virtual. Retrieved November 20, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/98/05/cyber/cyberlaw/01law.html
Lane, J. (2003). Digital Zapatistas. TDR/The Drama Review, 47(2), 129-144.
Levy, S. (1994). Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub, New York.
Ronfeldt, D. F. (1998). The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico. Rand Corp.
Samuel, A. W. (2004). Hacktivism and the Future of Political Participation. Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Taylor, P. A. (2005). From hackers to hacktivists: speed bumps on the global superhighway? New Media & Society, 7(5), 625.
Vegh, S. (2005). The media’s portrayal of hacking, hackers and hacktivism before and after September 11. First Monday, 10(2-7). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/1206/1126