PARIS - “The melting Arctic is under threat...Let's take action!” Last July, Greenpeace launched a vast media campaign to “stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic”, as the oil giant was getting ready to open its second Arctic well off Alaska.

Greenpeace’s campaign garnered huge support from the general public, but it also reached the international hacker collective known as Anonymous. Quickly, an army of net-activists took on the cause – and began hacking websites from five oil companies (Shell, BP, Exxon, Gazprom and Rosneft), accused of destroying the Arctic.

“Hacktivists and NGOs coming together is a new trend,” says Nicolas Danet, co-author of Anonymous, Internet Hackers or Digital Alter-globalists?. “The hacktivist movement is evolving, and some of them are now joining forces with NGOs. This is the case of net activist group Telecomix, who launched #JHack with the Reporters Without Borders NGO.”

Anti-globalists are particularly interested in hacktivism. Major mobilizations like the Occupy movement have shown NGOs that the Internet was a great place to rally people to their cause. French NGO network Crid is so convinced that this is the way to go that they have put it on the agenda of the 2013 World Social Forum, which will be held in March, in Tunisia, a country known for a revolution driven on social media.

“NGOs have to find a way to absorb the large social movements that are created online,” says Nicolas Danet. “Hacktivism is evolving and could lead to a hybrid collaboration between organizations and hackers. This is only the beginning.”

Hacktivist Nicolas Diaz agrees. He is head of IT systems for the  information systems for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH): “Hacktivism is coming out of anonymity to act as a bridge between hackers and NGOs. After all, hacktivism is just an expression to describe activists that use digital tools.”

How does Anonymous, who gave hacktivism its name, fit into his new configuration? “Anonymous has become a symbol,” says Nicolas Danet. “It is present in the protests and demonstrations, in the European Parliament… Anonymous will not stop anytime soon, even if some of its members will come out of anonymity to join the ranks of NGOs.”

Staying legal

According to Nicolas Diaz, “Anonymous is a great anonymous communications agency, but it can also be very juvenile, with many excesses. There is no degree of responsibility in Anonymous.” For him, “Hacktivists must respect an ethics code.” He regrets for example, the time Anonymous released incriminating personal data – that couldn’t be used as proof. “We cannot spend all our time denouncing things that aren’t legal, like drones, and then do the same thing. It’s counter-productive. We must respect the legal system,” he says.

Nicolas Diaz says that hacktivism is not piracy. “The hacktivism that I practice is defensive – I teach people about using secure networks and data encryption.” He adds, “we are accused of using the same weapons as cybercriminals, but that is not true. Hacking is prohibited and punishable by the law. We must respect the rule of law.”

DDoS though, is a sticky point. DDoS stands for Denial-of-service attack, overloading a website or network to the point of rendering it inaccessible to its users. Many consider it as the “the demonstration of the future” ‑ a digital version of strike or highway toll. But others say it is a violation of freedom of expression. “It is a real dilemma,” confesses Nicolas Diaz. “I’m not sure if putting a company in the spotlight by using DDoS is the best way of denouncing its actions, it’s difficult to say, really.”

The White House might be able to settle the issue. There is a petition on the White House website to legalize DDos attacks, which are still punishable by law.