(this talk was given in Zurich)
Telling the story of the Italian Hacktivist movement, i will begin from the
end, or better, from the last episode: the third national Hackmeeting
/>org), held between the 16th and the 18th of June in Rome, in a squatted
self-managed community centre, called Forte Prenestino. Three days of free
camping, workshops, hacking and networking inside the dungeons and the
labyrinthine cells of a military fort built at the end of the XIX century,
and occupied in 1986 by a collective of students, punx and underpaid or
unemployed youth from the East suburbs of Rome (the term "suburbs" in
Italy indicates overcrowded, peripheral areas of the big cities). About
3.000 people took part to the event, paying a subscription of 5.000 Lire
(around 2.30 US dollars) and partecipating to a vast range of events.
Amongst the various workshops: net.art (interventions by Connie Sollfrank,
Doll Yoko, 0100101110101101.ORG, Tommaso Tozzi; video interviews with
Rtmark, Mark Napier, Mongrel Project), packet radio, IP radio (Radio
Cybernet), criptography, censorship, Zen and the art of programming,
hacking on x25, the Blindfold Project, hacker ethics.
But what is an Hackmeeting? From the Declaration:
- a collective self-managed event, organised through a national dedicated
mailing list (email@example.com) of 400 subscribers.
- an encounter amongst people who desire to share their own experience and
knowledge, fighting for an horizontal communication.
- an opportunity for a high-level technical training, practically free of
charge, because of the spirit of sharing which inspires the participants.
- a stimulus to grow critical bacteria over many important issues, such as
free software, cyber-rights, social cooperation.
- an event for those who conceive technology as something "deconstructable
and reconfigurable", to put the hands on, consciously and collectively.
If we consider this statement, we immediately notice a strong reference to
a collective dimension of hacking, which is usually absent from public
imaginary. This lack of representation is evident if we consider the pop
imaginary created around the hacker's myth: on one side a certain kind of
cyberpunk literature, e.g. William Gibson's novels, highly contributed,
since the 80s, to create an iconography of the hacker as a solitary hero.
On the other side, mass media re-enforced this iconography, stripping the
hacker's profile of any heroic connotation and reducing it to an intruder
or a cracker who acts only for personal aims. More recently, in order to
make this narration more fluent and engaging, media have enriched the
hacker's profile with a cautious cultivation of its double: the good
hacker, often redeemed, which helps the cyber-police to retrace the bad
ones. In this way, we come to know that the ex public enemy n° 1, Kevin
Mitnick is now "cooperating" with the F.B.I, to retrace the creators of the
virus I love You, or if we move to Italy, a massive media campaign is
created around the case of Raoul Chiesa, an ex hacker who recently by a
In order to bypass the Faustian narration of the good and evil hacker, the
Italian movement strongly references the original spirit of sharing which
inspired research at M.I.T. in the '60s. This return to the roots, far from
any nostalgic fascination, serves in fact a double goal: 1) To demonstrate
that hacking is a broad field, that includes programming and not only
systems or intrusions of systems: "hackers are Steve Wozniac, the founder
of Apple, Linus Torwald, the creator of Linux, Richard Stallman the creator
of GNU; hackers are those who allow us to send an e-mail and to navigate
the Internet(1)"; 2) The second point is that the more commercial interests
become dominant and the more hacking depends not only upon the ability to
put the hands on technology, but on the "ethical choice" to employ this
ability for a social end. In this sense, the insistance over the ethical
aspects, corresponds to the necessity for hackers' communities to define a
common ground, to find new shared meanings.
On the other hand, the progressive erosion of power of historical
intermediate structures such as institutions, ideologies, churches, parties
and unions, produce a loss of sense and trust that capital have now to
replace artificially. In this way, the capital tests new shared meanings
produced within a community (real or virtual), in order to spend them in
the broader net of differentiated communities and potential consumers which
recognise themselves in a given set of values. As Pierre Levy states, "the
ability to build intelligent collectives on a regional level, will become
the decisive weapon to win the competition on a global scale". But the
ability to create "intelligent collectives"(2) is one with the capacity to
manipulate or create sociality. Therefore, in a competitive, anomic society
like ours, sociality becomes a value itself, "a rare commodity, to produce
and threat"(3). If this is true, sociality and trust define the new
territory of conflict.
"Who will build the new communities? And to do what?(4)"
Events like the Hackmeeting, not sponsored by private companies or funded
by public bodies, let us understand that not all of the gears of the
megamachine run perfectly. Strategic functions such as formation, and,
within certain limits, the funding and the allocation of human resources,
are subtracted from the capitalistic control through a cooperative net of
mutual help: a cooperative cicle, through which is possible to catch a
glimpse of a collective appropriation of technologies, at least at a local
If the Italian hackers approached radical positions, is because of their
strict connection with social movements. A connection which is completely
absent in North America for instance and present only in small cases in
West Europe. To talk about social movements in Italy, it means to tell the
brief history of the net of squatted community self-managed centres.
It's the second half of the 80s when a first wave of public houses,
abandoned warehouses, ex-military building, are occupied by students,
unemployed or underpaid workers. The first phase of pure resistance
culminates symbolically, in 1989, with the police attempt to shut down the
historical Milanese social centre Leonkavallo - which reacts violently,
hitting, with the riots, all the mainstream media. This symbolic event
generates, in the early 90s, a second wave of occupations, which brings the
net to a number of around 100 centers all around the country. Within this
net, social, cultural, political experiences and micro-economies grow as
bacteria's colonies: social centers like Forte Prenestino in Rome, Livello
57 in Bologna, Conchetta in Milan conduce an intense cultural activity,
made of concerts, video-festivals, performances, production and
distribution of underground material -- often replacing the lack of a
public cultural politics for youth.
Through the creation of these low budget events, often realised with
recycled material, new professional figures emerge: the students or
underpaid workers have a possibility to acquire a practical knowledge and,
growing up, to find a place in the productive cycle as immaterial
autonoumous workers, such as graphic, fashion and web-designers, musicians,
videomakers, photographers, promoters, journalists, programmers and system
administrators. This phenomenon takes place mainly in the North and in the
cities where service industries are quite developed, while the South offers
much less perspectives of introduction. What is peculiar to these
experiences is the attempt to work within the market, but mantaining a
cultural/political autonomy. In this way little publishing houses, video
collectives, and music crews are growing up, mantaining a strong
relationship with underground culture and transferring back resources -- in
terms of infrastructure, contacts, technical or creative skills -- to
squats and free spaces.
To go back to our story, in the second half of the 80's, hacking mainly means to phone phreak. An entire generation of kids, haunted by the movie WarGames, m
akes national and international free phone calls following the evolution of
the different technologies. From the mythical blue box, that was imitating
dialogue's frequencies amongst different telefonic centers to the
videotel/minitel conferences, to Itapac, a net was opening the american
lines and data banks to the Italian phreakers.
Beyond phone phreaking, a net of bbs, using Fido technology, starts to grow
up, in the beginning of the 90's also in Italy. The key year is the 1993,
when, from a rib of FidoNet, the first knots of the European Counter
Network (ECN) and of the italian CyberNet was born.
CyberNet takes the shape of an open and auto-managed rhizome of BBSs. The
subcultures that precipitate it are different: from the Milan punk
experience of the first part of the '80s, renewed in a cyber perspective by
the collective of the underground magazine Decoder, to the attempts of the
Florence-based Hacker BBS (later on, Virtual Town TV) to explore new
aesthetic forms, to the theoretical elaborations of the Roman AvANa BBS
(Warnings to Sailors BBS) about the citizenship income and the autonomous
polical enterprise. The messages flowing within the different areas of
CyberNet are completely transparent and horizontal, without any sysops
A kind of experiment, this one, that catalyzes suddenly the attention of
the Italian services of intelligence, while the software companies push to
stop the free software exchange on the BBS. In this way, in may 1994, with
the operation Hardware1, the judiciary ordains the seizure of about 150
BBSs, accusing several sysops of informatic piracy. With the broadest
crackdown of the telematic history the Italian autorities try, in absence
of certain laws, to render the sysops responsible for the content of the
messages hosted by the BBS.
During the first half of the '90s the maps of the community squatted
centers and of the BBSs grow and develop simultaneously (in 1995, about 100
squats are spread around the country, the knots of cybernet are about 40)
but without being perfectly superimposed. Even if the treated issues are
often close, telematic groups speak their own language, net oriented (free
access, privacy, no copyright), but that doesn't affect the traditional
activism and other forms of expression.
But the situation evolves very quickly. In December 1995 the tuscan group
of Strano Network calls for the first global Netstrike, to protest against
the nuclear experiments at Mururoa. Reloading manually for several hours
about 10 web-pages of the French government, thousands of net-strikers from
all around the world, almost block the access to the sites, demonstrating
that the technology of data transmission supplies also new kinds of social
and political protest.
The beginning of 1996 sees the birth of Island in the Net
(<http://www.ecn.org/>http://www.ecn.<http://www.ecn.org/>org) the largest
movement server, that hosts areas dedicated to a vast range of issues such
as the international support to the Ezln, cyber-rights, social activism,
gay-lesbian-transgender issues. In the lapse of two years all the Italian
hacktivist movement transfers its discussions on mailing lists and on the
web, while the first hacklabs are born in Florence, Milan, Catania, Rome.
In 1998 all the different components of the hacktivist movement gather, in
a squatted comunity center, the CPA of Florence for the first Italian
Hackmeeting, which will be repeated in 1999 in Milan, in another social
center, the Bulk.
This quick development of the movement immediately poses new questions.
With the new economy knocking at the door, a key issue is how to create
not copyrighted tools for cooperation, without seeing them appropriated and
privatised by someone.
In this sense, a fundamental event occurred in 1998, when Richard Stallman
came to Italy to meet some of the Italian hackers community. Richard
Stallman is known, not only to be one of the mythical hackers of the MIT,
the creator of Emacs and GNU, but also asthe visionary founder of the Free
Software Foundation and the inventor of the General Public Licence. The
GPL, also known as copyleft, is a licence that allows people to create and
distribute software, without necessary selling it: what the GNU programmers
sell, is the assistance more than the product itself. On the other hand, a
software under General Public Licence can also be sold, but what is more
important is that the Licence doesn't allow programmers or companies to
appropriate and hide the source code. A GPL software can be sold or freely
distributed, but only within an open system, in which anybody can access
the basic information necessary to modify the software.
The right to re-use software and, more in general, cultural products is
probably the key-point that Italian hackers are trying to affirm. If we
consider the vast range of seminars proposed at the Hackmeeting, from
reverse engineering to Linux in the public administration, from plagiarism
over the net to hacker ethics, we see how the issue of copyright is cutting
them transversally. In order to protect authors the Italian Hacker Movement
proposes the institution of a social salary or income citizenship and the
abolition of the old laws that regulate autorship.
At the basis of this claim there's the consciousness that the conflict
turns more and more around inclusion/exclusion than equality/disequality,
because social subjects mainly conceive equality as a right to access
information and opportunities. Being excluded today mainly means not to be
able to compete with the others in order to access resources(6). "It's the
scenario of the multitude, of everybody against everybody"(7). Reclaiming a
basic salary means to understand that we are all at work, in the measure in
which we are all excluded. Now that the line between lifetime and worktime
has been completely blurred, now that all the social creativity is turning
automatically into production of value, only because of its circulation
into the global net -- it's Kevin Kelly speaking here -- a basic salary for
everybody means to impede the capital appropriate freely social
productivity. Cancelling the obsolete laws that regulate authorship and
substituting them with a concept similar to the GPL means to affirm a
generalised right to access and manipulate information: until few years ago
the anti-copyright front was limited to a bunch of underground zines, now
that corporations are trying to patent and appropriate any form of life,
anti-copyright is the only chance that is given to us to survive.
1. From the Hackmeeting press conference. 2. Pierre Levy, Collective
Intelligence, 1996. 3. Aldo Bonomi, Il trionfo della moltitudine. Forme e
conflitti nella societą che viene, Bollati Boringhieri, 1996. 4. Carlo
Formenti, Incantati dalla Rete, Raffaello Cortina, 2000. 5. Andrč Gorz
recognizes the alternative potential of mutual nets of >cooperation, in his
Misery of the present, wealth of the possible, 1997.
6. Cfr. Aldo Bonomi, op. cit.
7. Carlo Formenti, op. cit.
Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: the new biology of machines, social systems
and the economic world, 1995.