The ethics of hacktivism:
the Wikileaks case

Marta Bernardi
Current events

The more serious and widespread the harm revealed, the more the leaking is morally justified and maybe even obligatory. On the other hand, the less serious it is, and the more the aim of leaking is simply to embarrass, the less morally justified it is.

Whether one is familiar with all the facets of the Wikileaks affair or has a vague memory of it due to the brawl that broke out in 2011, the infamous Julian Assange is most certainly known by many.  Famous founder of the digital media organisation known as Wikileaks, Assange is still being held in Belmarsh prison in the United Kingdom. Assange and the events connected to him have been placed in the spotlight once again thanks to the United States’ request for his extradition in 2019 under the Espionage Act. There are eighteen counts against Assange – a heap of charges for conspiracy and espionage – and they could be worth a total of 175 years in prison. This request for extradition has caused a great uproar, not only in the media but also in legal terms, as it has been tossed around between pleas and denials. Since the 21st of April of this year, however, it would seem that the extradition of the Australian journalist and hacker is getting ever closer after the British Supreme Court officially issued the formal extradition order, which could take at least a couple of years.

Over and above the matter itself, the really fascinating thing about this situation is, as it is often the case, the different public perceptions of the events. In fact, this comes as no surprise, given that hacktivism itself is a controversial business, perceived in very different ways. It is generally described – especially by its participants – as a phenomenon of non-violent civil disobedience, different from traditional forms of civil disobedience only in its form: it occurs online. Instead of occupying, blocking and barricading physical positions and places of power, hacktivists take control of new positions and places of power, that is, cyberspace. The takeover occurs through direct hacking – such as the use of worms, viruses or defacements of websites – or indirect hacking – such as virtual sit-ins and mail bombings. The motive behind these actions is usually political, whether it is protesting against an ideology, an organisation or a government.

Haters of this practice mainly condemn its anonymity, which is disdained primarily because hiding the identity of the perpetrators also means hiding their numbers, since an individual can have several virtual identities. These activities could therefore potentially be the expression of radical groups whose political positions do not represent the will of the general public at all. Secondly, anonymity, in particular, is aggressively criticised because it makes it impossible to account for one’s actions. Indeed, one of the pillars of today’s democracy is the presence of a system of check and balances, whereby the powerful can be kept, precisely, in check. Hacktivism is often referred to as a state of the art watchdog, intended as the latest addition to the aforementioned weights and counterweights of modern democracy; critics, however, question –  and rightly so –  where its counterweight lies.

These conflicting views can easily be found in the Wikileaks case. Wikileaks –  as its name suggests –  is based on leaking. These leaks are published through a system that guarantees the protection of the identity of the informers, keeping them anonymous. The activity of leaking can be described as:

Leaking is the act of an insider who, in the public interest, reveals sensitive information about his or her organization, information that those in charge of the organization do not want revealed. […] The more serious and widespread the harm revealed, the more the leaking is morally justified and maybe even obligatory. On the other hand, the less serious it is, and the more the aim of leaking is simply to embarrass, the less morally justified it is. (Sorel, 2015: 398) 

Supporters of the organisation – as well as of hacktivism in general – often refer to the concept mentioned above. The extent and gravity of the information revealed – for example, in this case, the video evidence of civilians being killed by the US army in Iraq – justifies the means by which it was obtained, which is the nexus to the charges against Assange. According to them, the charges against the Australian hacker and his subsequent extradition are an assault on the freedom of the press and of speech and are therefore an infringement of the specific area of human rights that concerns the right of freedom of expression. On top of this, more specifically regarding Assange’s case rather than Wikileaks generally speaking, there are fears of possible degrading and violent treatment of the defendant if this extradition were to seriously take place (an issue that initially contributed to the formal rejection of the US request).

Conversely, criticisms of the organisation and its members partly concern hacktivism itself and, more specifically, the anonymity of its members (Assange is one of the very few faces of Wikileaks, and most of its members remain protected by anonymity). The anonymity and secrecy of the organisation are also criticised from a journalistic point of view because they make it impossible to verify sources, which is what happens in traditional media organisations and would therefore affect the quality and credibility of what is being published. Other accusations against Wikileaks and, consequently, against Assange are due to his publishing private emails containing the names and surnames of employees and officials of various nature, thus effectively violating their privacy and committing a crime. 

The choice of which position to support, at least for the moment, is left to the individual and their political and intellectual sensibilities. The web remains something largely unmonitored and uncensored, and those who wallow in it with ease intend to keep it that way. By doing so, they clearly have much more freedom and thus more power than the average user, a power that sometimes, as in the case of Wikileaks, leads to the self-appointed role of society’s watchdogs, vigilantes worthy of the best comic strips, who stand in defence of battles of greater or lesser magnitude against what they consider wrong or dangerous.

[1] Thomas, J. (2001). Ethics of Hacktivism. Information Security Reading Room, 12.

[2] Sorell, T. (2015). Human rights and hacktivism: The cases of Wikileaks and Anonymous. Journal of Human Rights Practice, 7(3), 391-410.

[3] The Guardian, (2022). UK court approves extradition of Julian Assange to US.

[4] BBC, (2022). Julian Assange denied permission to appeal against extradition.

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