marcus westbury

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Hacktivism comes full circle (and why it’s Peter Garrett’s fault)

August 7th, 2009 by marcus

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ONE of Melbourne’s lesser known cultural innovations came full circle at the Melbourne International Film Festival this week. MIFF’s web site has been repeatedly targeted by Chinese hackers who defaced it and clogged its communications.

Few would have noted the irony that political “hacktivism” itself is a Melbourne innovation or that the current federal Arts Minister had a pivotal, if peripheral, role in its origins.

That the Melbourne International Film Festival screens films that provoke lively debate and discussion is a good thing. A good festival of imagination and ideas will always create talking points. Yet it is difficult to imagine that MIFF Director Richard Moore was actively courting controversy with this year’s program. It is hardly a festival erring on the side of gratuitous shock value, yet it has somehow created a series of notable international controversies. None of the festival staff could have foreseen the level of controversy that has followed on from programming Uighur documentary The 10 Conditions of Love.

One result is that the festival website has been singled out for an orchestrated cyber attack. It could even be a first. I’m yet to find a comparable example of a cultural festival being targeted by overt political hacktivism. In the past, hackers have hit festival websites along with many others with all manner of pranks, scams and schemes, but it is rare to target them in an attempt to influence their content. Films and film festivals have attracted protests, boycotts and blockades before but the sheer novelty of this week’s protest and the ominous implications of shadowy Chinese hackers have been enough to put this year’s MIFF on to the pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

It is an irony and a largely forgotten piece of history that hacktivism itself is a Melbourne innovation. The first piece of hack as protest, the WANK worm that targeted NASA and US government mainframe computers with anti-nuclear messages in the late 1980s, is widely believed to have originated in Melbourne. Author Suelette Dreyfus, whose Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier is the definitive account of those events, has said that Melbourne’s “history as Australia’s intellectual centre created a breeding ground” that first gave birth to the hacktivist phenomenon.

In the decades since, political hackings, virtual sit-ins, and denial of service attacks against governments and corporations have become increasingly common. The term hacktivism, or “the non-violent use of illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools in pursuit of political ends”, was coined in the mid-1990s and hacktivism has become a sufficiently diverse area to have warranted its own conferences, schisms and fiery debates about its means and ethics.

For the arts community, the other great irony of the events this week is that a key inspiration for that first political computer hack is now our federal Arts Minister. The WANK worm’s main feature is that it spread itself across computer networks posting the line “You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war” – a Midnight Oil lyric. A second version of the WANK worm was simply called Oilz.

Twenty years on, it is interesting to speculate as to what those original anti-nuclear nerds would make of the movement that they kicked off. It’s a long way from anti-nuclear campaigners targeting mainframes to Chinese hackers targeting Melbourne film festivals.

Then again, it’s a long way from outlaw inspiration to arts minister. Whether these kind of attacks succeed is ultimately a cultural question.

For MIFF, the attacks have been disruptive but the festival has gone ahead. They have rightly not withdrawn the film, and the response to the controversy has warranted an encore screening.

The 10 Conditions of Love would likely have disappeared barely noticed if it not been mentioned in hundreds of newspaper articles, over 10,000 web pages and thousands of blog posts — most preoccupied with the clumsy attempts to stifle it.

For the Chinese, the force of both the political and cyber attack hasn’t exactly been a clever use of soft power. Though the technical sophistication is impressive, the cultural sophistication leaves a lot to be desired. These events demonstrate that in the age of the internet, shooting the messenger simply spurs on new messengers.

Hopefully, next year the hackers will stay away, Chinese films and filmmakers will return, free speech will be upheld and the next round of debates and controversies will be fruitful.

* A NOTE: In hindsight this piece is inapropriately dismissive of the damage done to MIFF by the hacking. The reason is largely due to the long lead time between writing it, it’s original publication in The Age and its republication now. My column is written 4-5 days before it appears in the paper and in this case events overtook it. In the interim the hacking had escalated and the denial of service attacks against the MIFF web site and the ticketing systems got a lot worse. My apologies if it appears that i underpalyed that or that i was dismissive of that.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Andrew Frost Aug 7, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    So that’s where the intellectual centre is! Melbourne! Yo.

  • 2 marcus Aug 7, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Well it was in 1989. Allegedly.

  • 3 Emmeline Aug 7, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Funny how righteous indignation about a movie/book usually leads to it being far more popular than it would have been. Maybe the filmmakers should send them a thankyou note 😉

  • 4 reda Dec 8, 2011 at 3:50 am

    china hackers are rude !