The inception of the internet revolutionized information communication. It also opened up a novel medium to reveal the abuse of power rampant in governments and large corporations.
Over the past two decades, the net has steadily been established as a haven for a plethora of activist groups and counterculture movements, based on the widely spread belief that it provided anonymity. Revelations by a series of whistleblowers, the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden being the most recent, have severely altered this utopian image of the internet. The leaks have revealed widespread bulk surveillance, mass data collection. These activities are being resisted by a new generation of online activists who realize that the freedom of the internet is vital for the future of an open democracy.
Leakage of information revealing the abuse of the fundamental human right to privacy has become the civil disobedience of this age. The consequences of engaging in this new form of civil disobedience is illustrated by the incarceration of Barrett Brown, Chelsea Manning, and Jeremy Hammond in the last two years.
Hammond is a political activist and computer programmer (hacktivist) who leaked the internal emails of the private intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor). The emails revealed that the firm was spying on various human rights and activist groups at the request of the U.S. government. Hammond was held without trial for 18 months during which he faced periods of solitary confinement and was sentenced to ten years in a federal prison and three years of supervised release.
Brown is a journalist and satirist who is facing up to a maximum of 105 years in prison for creating the wiki page ProjectPM, which shared and facilitated the analysis of leaks from private intelligence firms including, Stratfor. The threat posed by these private firms to freedom of information, the incipient value of the coming century, is recognized by activists like Brown, and is the chief driving force that leads them to reveal the abuse of power by governments and allied private corporations.
The battle between hacktivists and the surveillance state is fundamentally a struggle for a genuine democracy as recognized by Manning in one of her chat logs: “I want people to see the truth regardless of who they are because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for the release of classified documents including the Collateral Murder video, Granai massacre video, Iraq war logs, and U.S. diplomatic cables. This was one of the longest sentences ever passed by the U.S. government for the leaking of information, and the Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, released a report alleging that Manning was held in “cruel, inhuman and degrading” conditions. The sentencing of Manning acts as a warning to future whistleblowers, rather than a proportionate response to Manning’s actions.
The most common criticism facing whistleblowers and cyber activists is that their activities are illegal. They must proceed knowing that they will likely face legal prosecution and a large portion of the population will label them immoral. However, despite potential consequences, they keep stepping forward to inform the public about government abuse and overreach, as they too have decided to do what is right, irrespective of how their fellow citizens will view them.
If the virtue of leaking certain kinds of secrets still appears dubious, one does not need look any further than the remarks made by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan at an open forum at the Department of State: “If you want a secret respected, see that it’s respectable in the first place.”