In the early days of the computing revolution, hackers and regular computer users were often indistinguishable. Core to some of the early ethical tenets of the computer world was a certain sense for mischief and rebelliousness. In certain case, some of the early pioneers (Steve Jobs, for example) knowingly broke the law. Others would reserve their pranks for the 1st of April. But one thing that was constant was an understanding that the computer industry (and later, the internet industry) was a bit more mischievous and more willing to take risks
As the internet became more popular, the general public started bumping into some of those jokes and illegal acts. Early adopters understood them to be part of the culture of the internet but as the mainstream came online, tolerance for such events decreased and, as the net became a little more corporate, agreements regarding mischievous behavior that sometimes skirted the edges of the law disappeared.
Where unruly went next
But the unruly behavior didn’t completely disappear and took different forms.
On one side, rule-breaking was replaced with rule testing, resulting in companies like Napster, that took on the whole copyright regime and threw it under the bus, trying to build a business model based on what had been previously considered illegal. Of course, as often happens in those cases, they were sued in almost inexistence. But the genie was out of the bottle and the boundaries they broke were never truly re-established.
In other, darker corners, some of the rule and law breaking professionalized itself. As the net became more mainstream, everyone including criminals came online. And the criminals saw some of the hacking as a lucrative line of business, getting into areas phishing, corporate breaking and entering, reselling information or raiding financial data. All those types of behaviors were a corruption of the original unruly approach and turned it into something more sinister.
But yet another strand of the unruly behavior moved much farther, mutating as it met certain political ideologies. Attaching itself and merging with ideologies ranging from libertarianism to anarchism, this strand became much more unpredictable.
The rise of hacktivists
In the early 80s, groups of hackers started getting together and bring more of an ideology-bent approach to their attacks. One such early organization, the Chaos Computer Club, highlighted security issues in german banking system by hacking them in front of the media, taking large amounts of money out, and then returning it at press conferences the next day.
As internet rule-breaking became its own ideology, more groups started appearing, taking on battles with more traditional players online. Part internet communities, part memes, those groups were loosely formed, with participants often not knowing each others but leveraging online tools to organize themselves and select their targets.
In the early 21st century, a new group emerged from the 4Chan discussion board: Anonymous, an internet collective organizing rapid internet based protect actions, often taking the guise of denial of service attack, the practice of taking down web-based services by overloading them. Some of their initial efforts included increased actions in the continuing battle between the internet and the church of scientology. But they were just getting started.
Wikileaks and the rise of Anonymous
The Wikileaks releases, and subsequent attacks by governments which felt their reputation had been sullied by the releases, gave Anonymous a cause they would attach themselves to. In rising to wikileaks defense, the Anonymous collective started taking on the web infrastructure of organizations that had hurt wikileaks and its ability to operate. Because many in the online community felt the Wikileaks cause to be just, the actions of Anonymous were heralded as a positive counter-force to supra-legal approaches taken by opponents of the leaks site.
Their efforts led to an increased online battle between government-backed forces, corporations who want to sell their services by demonizing groups like Wikileaks, and the Anonymous collective. For example, HBGary Federal, a security company that targeted Anonymous and Wikileaks as the enemy, came to be a target.
A million little pieces
But as Anonymous’ reputation grew, so did disagreement within its ranks as to what to do and how to do it. At the same time, a number of copycat organizations started to emerge, bringing different causes as justifications for their efforts.
Over the last couple of months, LulzSec established itself as a strong contender in the field, hacking such organizations as Sony, the US Senate, the CIA, the Brazilian president’s site, etc… grabbing large amounts of information with each attacks and releasing it online.
And this is where we stand today: the idea of heavily publicized online hacking exploit as a form of protest has taken hold and is probably here to stay. And an idea is not something one can destroy that easily.
Let’s roll back the tape a little bit on what happened after Napster was pretty much shut down by the music industry. The concept of online music sharing didn’t die with Napster, it just took different forms, and that’s something the music industry never recovered from.
So organizations like Anonymous, LulzSec, and whoever comes next are here to stay. Their insurgent actions will probably work as a counterbalance to many efforts by corporations and government to increase their control of the internet. However, their actions will also result in governments and corporations using those efforts as an example of why there is a need for more centralized control of the internet.
So no matter where you stand on their efforts (whether you applaud or condemn them), the net result is that we are about to enter a long internet conflict between online hacktivists and established stakeholders.