By Tim Hardy
In no domain is the law more of an ass than in the realm of computing.
If you are not a software engineer, you might not understand why some – including a contributor to this site – have reacted with horror to UK Uncut’s actions today in staging a virtual protest and posting anti-tax avoidance messages on a Vodafone website. Whether you agree with Latentexistence or not, his post provides a good overview of what happened.
From the press release it appears that what was done merely involves a breach of terms and conditions of Vodafone’s World of Difference programme. As such, it will probably result in nothing more than a few of those who leaked their passwords to UK Uncut in anger at Vodafone’s perceived hypocrisy having their blog access removed.
From the original tweets, however, it initially sounded like an offense under the Computer Misuse Act (1990) which carries heavy penalties.
People are always excited by tales of cyber-sabotage. Even the famously moderate Sunny Hundal was thrilled by the story of the Stuxnet worm. What many outside the technology sector do not understand is quite how draconian the laws concerning computers are or how easy it is to get caught.
Ask the five alleged members of Anonymous in the UK – aged, 15, 16, 19, 20 and 26 – who were arrested in coordinated dawn raids while another forty people were being bust in America by the FBI. They have had their computers, laptops, mobile phones and storage devices including mp3 players seized and are on bail right now awaiting trial. Imagine trying to manage your life if all of your equipment with your files, emails and address book was being held for months while police examined it at their leisure. You have backups, right?
If you value your privacy, encrypting your files won’t help. In the UK you can go to jail for five years just for refusing to give your password to the police under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000).
Do you know about Gary McKinnon who hacked into US computers to look for evidence of UFOs? He risks being tried as a spy in the US – with the risk of torture and execution that entails – and has been awaiting trial for seven years.
We live in a world where rich corporations use the bloody language of “piracy” to describe a teenager copying a song from a friend. In spite of opposition from organisations like the Open Rights Group, the last government passed the Digital Economy Act. This law that makes it possible for a rich music mogul to have your family disconnected from the internet merely by accusing you of copyright infringement. There is no need for them to prove that you’ve done anything wrong. Nick Clegg pledged to repeal the act to students before the election but as we know, for Clegg, promises to students don’t count.
As the world’s governments and international corporations like to remind us, the internet is serious business. To mess with it – even in the most harmless way – is treated by the law as akin to an act of terrorism.
We live in a society in which an 85-year-old man can be classified as a “domestic extremist” for the deeply radical act of taking out a pad and drawing a sketch at a peaceful demonstration and a woman can be found guilty of a crime for reading out a list of names of soldiers killed in Iraq. It was of course the almost pathological authoritarianism of the last Labour government that seduced many into voting Liberal Democrat at the last election.
Criminalisation of dissent is more and more inevitable. Even when it is not criminalised, the police are too often ready to act as if it had been.
In 1963, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. described the goal of non-violent direct action in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
In any act of nonviolent direct action the question should be not “should I do this?” but “how effective a tactic is this?”
I am not making any judgment as to the legality of today’s action. I wish to ask if it was a good tactic.
That is has lost some support for UK Uncut is undeniable. That is has divided those who act with UK Uncut is also clear. But has it dramatised an issue so it can no longer be ignored and highlighted the way in which bad companies and bad individuals think a little bit of charity work absolves them of all sins?
If it has then, legal or not, it was a good action.
When we walk into a bank dressed as superheroes, we may look like we’re playing it for the lulz but, on- and offline, activism is serious business.