[blog] Internet Archive and Hacker Ethics: Answers to datafication from the hacktivist world

Guest author: Silvia Semenzin

This blogpost looks into the Internet Archive as a case-study to discuss hacktivism as a form of resistance to instances of control on the Internet and the use of data for political and commercial purposes. It argues hacktivism should not only be considered a social movement, but also an emerging culture informed by what may be defined as ‘hacker ethics’, after Pekka Himanen.

The Internet Archive is a free digital library founded in 1996 by Brewster Kahle, a computer engineer at MIT, who created a non-profit project which aims to collect cultural artefacts (books, images, movies, audio, etc.) and internet pages to promote human knowledge. Building a “global brain” can be challenging in the era of datafication and the Information Society, especially because huge amounts of information (and disinformation) are added on the internet continuously. Trying to create a modern version of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Internet Archive’s goal is to make human knowledge accessible to everybody and preserve all kinds of documents. So far, the Internet Archive has digitalized more than 3 million of books, still scanning around 1000 books per day.

The Internet Archive in both strategies and business model seems to appeal to ‘hacker ethics’ as described by the Finnish philosopher Pekka Himanen through the hacker ethics of work, hacker ethics of money, and hacker ethics of the network:

1. For Himanen, ‘Hacker ethics of work’ describes passion in work, the freedom to organize one’s time, and creativity -which is the combination of the first two: for hackers, working with passion is the final purpose. This means that financial motivations are not of primary importance. Instead, they are just a result of work.
2. Benefits are measured in both passionate effort and social value, both features of the ‘hacker ethics of money’. This means that the work of a hacker must be recognized by the hacker community and that it must be accessible and open to everyone. This represents the vision of an open and horizontal model of knowledge, similar to the one at the Academy of Plato, which was based on a continuous and critical debate to reach scientific truths, even though many could argue that, in general, hacker culture is still not that open and horizontal (e.g. hostility to non-white male identities). However, projects such as Internet Archive seem to follow this model of shared knowledge for the sake of science.
3. Finally, the ‘hacker ethics of the network’ refers to the relationship between hackers and the Internet. On the one hand, from this relationship stems the value of the free activity, which indicates the act of defending total freedom of expression on the internet. On the other hand, hackers do also worry about involving everyone in the digital community and make the Network free and accessible to everybody (crypto parties are born as a result of this idea). This value is known as ‘social responsibility’.

Applied to the Internet Archive, it seems to draw on three strategies, in particular, that of participation and anonymity by default and non-profit business model. By doing so, the Internet Archive is defending the freedom of information, a fundamental right that needs protection in both the offline and the online world. To make sure that there is freedom of information, it is necessary to involve as many people as possible in the sharing of knowledge. Anyone can read and upload material to the website, thereby taking part in building a global digital library. Secondly, Freedom of information, freedom of expression and the right to anonymity are built in the Internet Archive by design and align with hacker ethics values. The Internet Archive does not track their user; they do not keep the Internet Protocol (IP) address of readers and make use of a secure web protocol (https). The website does not use data from users, not even for marketing: being a non-profit library, Internet Archive is funded on donations instead of advertising, or the collection/selling of personal data.

In extension, it could be argued that the Internet Archive with these anonymity and participatory practices often opposes larger datafication processes. The processes of datafication of society, recently observed in the rise of platforms and apps, implies that our financial habits, personal communication, movement, social network and political and religious orientation will translate into data. The availability of significant amounts of data raises questions concerning their usage by governments and corporations. Their access to Big Data might have a negative effect on both individuals and communities, by increasingly turning citizens into consumers, thereby sustaining a certain form of control. Fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of association or right to privacy seem growingly threatened by the collection and analysis of large data sets.

Guided by these values, hacktivists often criticize the use of technology and Big Data as it would go against their ethics, and try to spread hacker ethics using different a kind of action. Among the heterogeneity of hacktivist action, the Internet Archive can represent a good example of hacker ethics, as well as a powerful project born to defend freedom of knowledge and digital rights. These kinds of initiatives are relevant when researching for hacktivism and datafication because they illustrate how hacker ethics may be spreading the awareness concerning issues of datafication.


Himanen, P. (2002). Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Society. Prologue by LinusTorvalds. Destino

Hintz, A., Dencik, L., & Wahl-Jorgensen, K. (2017). Digital Citizenship and Surveillance| Digital Citizenship and Surveillance Society—Introduction. International Journal of Communication, 11, 9.

Internet Archive: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music & Wayback Machine. (n.d.). Retrieved 22 February 2018, from https://archive.org/index.php

Milan, S. & Atton, C. (2015). Hacktivism as a radical media practice. Routledge companion to alternative and community media, 550-560.

Noah C.N. Hampson (2012), ‘Hacktivism: A New Breed of Protest in a Networked World’ 35 B.C. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 511, http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/iclr/vol35/iss2/6 accessed 05/02/2018


About Silvia

Silvia Semenzin is a DATACTIVE research associate and PhD student in Sociology at the University of Milan. She is currently researching hacktivism and hacker ethics and is interested in the influence that digital technologies have on political action, public debate and citizens’ mobilization as instruments for democracy.