Hacktivism, governance, and copyright debates: 4chan style

Terra Nova is the term used to describe our weird existence in the digital realm that we call virtual worlds. Edward Castronova claims that we are in the process of exodus to these worlds. Equally interesting to note is that, as new worlds, our virtual existence complicates the real one by consistently questioning the regulations and governance that have been known to be tried and true, exposing their cracks and irregularities. Apparently, our very own Luddie (who was blatantly chatting with his alter-ego Uri the other day) wrote an e-paper on the future of virtual worlds which I illegally downloaded from The Pirate Bay. Who wants to pay for that shit, right? In it, he talks about the political structures that guide these virtual worlds and the governance structures that emerge within them. And he claims that terrestrial governments are rapidly becoming irrelevant. The problem, as he sees, is this: “when we move from the so-called real world to virtual worlds, we are moving from worlds that have been constructed by persons of tremendous vision to persons that are, quite frankly, computer engineers,” the implication being that these guys have no business governing their cubicles let alone a world (however *unreal* it may be). Another excerpt from the said e-paper: “The problem is that as virtual worlds become more and more important, the management of virtual worlds has become more and more erratic, heavy handed, and perhaps even corrupt.”

Well said, Luddie… but… I am going to say that these computer engineers who are pretending to be in charge of governance of these worlds may actually be serving a very utilitarian function: to initiate a much-needed change in the real world itself. By pretending to be in charge, they are mimicking real-world governance and policy-making (because they don’t know any better), and are inadvertently exposing how dysfunctional of our real-world systems have become both online and offline. No doubt, the convergence era brought its own set of problems. Equally obvious is that our laws and policies do not exactly satisfy the needs of a full-blown participatory culture fostered in the digital realm. We are in the process of redefining such policies and how virtual worlds should be governed. In the meantime, to make up for the absence of a functional system, computer programmers exercise a heavy-handed management style whereby users are kicked out, scammers trick n00bs, and users, who still don’t feel like justice was served, take matters into their own hands. End result: chaos ensues.

Time and again, we witnessed this dynamic play out between different groups in Second Life. Griefers harass people as they do in their usual way. They abuse the loopholes in the platform and ToS. Linden Lab initiates a blanket mass-ban that punishes the guilty along with the innocent associated with the guilty. Lands are seized, accounts are banned, forums are flooded with irate commentary… Banned accounts return under alt accounts and cause more mischief. Vigilante groups emerge to restore order because, clearly, the bans and regulations didn’t solve any problems: so now we have the JLU strutting around in their spandex pants. Linden Lab thinks “Hey, we can get these guys do some of the dirty work.” Arrangements are made under the table, privileges are granted to some people. People who identify with these griefing groups (or are associated with them somehow) retaliate by penetrating the vigilante group, hacking their Wiki, and exposing the corruption that goes on in the “government” by revealing shady connections which should have never existed. Throw in a university, a viewer, and a clueless pundit-blogger somewhere in the story, and voila! Governance at its best! The bigger question is this: is it any different than how real governments function? Not really… But Second Life is a game (you say), who takes it seriously anyway? Not!

It turns out, as Uri (Luddie’s evil twin) says at the end of their imaginary chat, the game just got bigger. Indeed!

Let’s zoom out of Second Life for a minute and venture forth into the dark corridors of the Interwebs. We are now looking at the message boards that gave birth to the infamous 4chan culture. Disgusting! Gross! Cover your eyes with a spoon! Well, actually peek so you can see what went down last week… Their latest activity du jour: Operation Payback is a Bitch. It all started when Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had contracted with an Indian software company to shut down free file-sharing sites such as The Pirate Bay. This decision is one of the ongoing attempts to protect intellectual property that started with the lawsuit against Napster. Created by Shawn Fanning as a peer-to-peer network that began in 1999, Napster set to redefine the Internet, the music industry, and the way we all think about intellectual property. The network was closed down after a lawsuit but not without giving birth to various other peer-to-peer file sharing networks such as The Pirate Bay, suggesting that it is pretty darn impossible to crush such initiatives and no content is really safe on the Internet. And thus began the string of lawsuits. That we are in an age of serial lawsuits is a strong indicator that American copyright laws, as Siva Vaidhyanathan suggests, are dysfunctional, in that, they hinder cultural production. Within the absence of a functional policy and copyright laws, companies started acting as the watchdogs of intellectual property, unleashing numerous lawsuits upon the guilty and innocent alike, mostly to extract money from whoever buys into the scheme. Virtual worlds exposed the cracks in our governance systems, peer-to-peer file sharing networks demonstrate that our copyright laws have become bankrupt in the face of a burgeoning participatory culture. The question in this scenario is this: who is watching the vigilantes in this Wild West? Enter Anonymous who called on its community to launch distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS) against RIAA, MPAA, and the law companies that are leading the copyright infringement lawsuits. Besides the damage these attacks have caused, the bloggers claim, this initiative could mark the first mass cyber protest of its kind on the Web. Could the Internet Hate Machine be responsible for… uhm… hacktivism?!? Actually, if you look at the definition that our very own Luddie gives in his article on Wikileaks published in the Nation, it certainly does. He explains hacktivism as “the application of information technologies (and the hacking of them) to political action.” One blogger cheerfully announces “In a massive triumph for freedom of the Internet a British law firm (ACS: Law) that specialises in anti-piracy cases has been exposed by Internet activists for what it is: a heartless, soulless, money-grubbing conglomeration of complete bastards, who have no respect for human rights, or even humans.”

The attacks of Anonymous against RIAA took down the organization’s site for one hour and 37 minutes. In a smart mob-like fashion, the group distributed instructions to users throughout the weekend, indicating the specific time to launch the attacks as well as the target IP address. Protestors also Google bombed a phrase accusing the president of MPAA of child molestation and attacked the Indian software company that MPAA and RIAA hired to shut down the free file-sharing sites. Slyck news reports that the group also targeted the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT) Web site. Almost nine days after the initial attacks against the MPAA & RIAA, the focus of 4chan shifted to ACS:Law and Davenport Lyons. Exposing security issues and Web server mismanagement, these attacks left these sites down for several hours at a time. In the case of ACS:Law, an entire database of e-mails was left exposed on their server for several hours, ready to be downloaded by hackers who, then, promptly uploaded its contents to The Pirate Bay. Over the weekend, legal exchanges and embarrassing e-mails were published all over the Internet. Slyck reports that the file contains around a month of webmails belonging to solicitor Andrew Crossley, head of ACS:Law. According to the Register, the e-mails revealed that ACS:Law threatened lawsuits against alleged P2P copyright infringers unless they agree to an out-of-court settlement, typically of £500. As sites like TorrentFreak continued to leak the contents of the company’s private correspondence on their sites, it became apparent that ACS:Law was actually leveling wrongful claims against those who had no idea what was going on. While the company owner Andrew Crossley was happy to brag about how much money he had been making, the hacked e-mails revealed that the human victims of this scheme were from poor people pleading for clemency, to bewildered old age pensioners accused of sharing adult movies and to married men who have been confronted with allegations of sharing gay porn. The leaked e-mails show that many of the alleged infringers simply refused to be bullied and had clearly been using the advice issued by both BeingThreatened.com and that available in the discussion threads of Slyck.com. They also seemed to very aware of the limitations of the evidence and also their obligations under the law. That’s good to know. UK’s Information Commissioner announced that ACS:Law could face a fine of as much as half a million British Pounds for not ensuring that the personal data was protected. Andrew Crossley is also being investigated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority on charges of unethical conduct.

All is well that ends well (for the most part).

5 thoughts on “Hacktivism, governance, and copyright debates: 4chan style

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